You’re going to miss bees

If the bees go, so do our fruits and vegetables

Take a good look at this honeybee gathering pollen from Mexican sage in Davis. It might not be around long.

Take a good look at this honeybee gathering pollen from Mexican sage in Davis. It might not be around long.

Photo By Kathy Keatley Garvey

Commercial beekeepers make honey, right?

Wrong. “I’ve been keeping bees commercially for 30 years, and I’ve never produced honey,” local beekeeper Rick Schubert told SN&R last month. Like most commercial beekeepers, Schubert’s bees do their work—and make his money—by pollinating commercial crops.

Sounds easy, really. Put a bunch of hives—several thousand or so—in a blossoming almond grove and let the bees do what comes naturally. Bees get pollen, almond growers get almonds, and beekeepers get money.

But over the last couple of seasons, things haven’t been going so well for the bees. That’s why Schubert, who owns the Bee Happy Apiary in Winters, was at a lecture last month by UC Davis’ resident bee expert Eric Mussen. Mussen, UCD’s extension apiculturist, is an internationally known expert on honeybees, and he was named Beekeeper of the Year by the California State Beekeepers Association for his contributions to the beekeeping industry.

As recent media reports on 60 Minutes and in the New Yorker make clear, honeybees are having a rough go of it, and that’s more serious than their size might suggest.

Mussen made clear from the beginning that the current difficulties honeybees face—a syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been affecting hives all over the United States—has profound implications for everyone. In hives with CCD, mature bees simply disappear, leaving behind larvae and pupae to die unattended in the hive.

“Bees provide 80 percent of commercial pollenization,” he told an audience of close to a hundred at the seminar. A serious disruption to the honeybees means a serious disruption to agriculture—and, by extension, to our food supply. “One-third of the food in our diet is pollinated by honeybees,” Mussen pointed out.

So without bees, we can just forget about fruits and vegetables, for the most part. Grains are wind-pollinated, but most of the rest of the healthy stuff needs bees.

And there are big bucks involved, too. Mussen threw around some numbers that were both large and scary. “$15 billion in U.S. crops and $6 billion in California crops are at stake,” he said.

So what’s up with the bees? Mussen, possessor of one of those dry, scientific senses of humor, offered up theories galore, varying from the divine (bees raptured to heaven) to the conspiratorial (jet “chemtrails” or “chemical contrails” supposedly intended to kill old people have accidentally killed bees). He debunked them both gleefully, then addressed more serious theories in depth.

From Mussen’s perspective, as someone who studies bees, the recent outbreak of CCD is not an isolated incident. “The bee journals,” he said, referring to publications directed at beekeepers, “have reported similar phenomena since 1869.” Mussen mentioned die-offs in three consecutive years in the early 1960s, as well as the “disappearing disease” of 1975. What makes the current situation different, Mussen said, is the involvement of “many bees from lots of places.”

There are a number of suspects that scientists and beekeepers are looking at closely: parasitic mites; a couple of nasty new viruses; pesticides (especially neonicotinoids, a synthetic pesticide that mimics the toxic effects of nicotine); cell phones; and the aforementioned chemtrails and divine intervention. Mussen discussed each, and particularly enjoyed “myth busting” the cell phone and chemtrail theories.

The bottom line is, Mussen said, that honeybees “don’t have much of an immune system, which makes them a target for opportunistic invaders.” The bees’ immune system relies on natural protection that they receive from the pollen they collect, so “the best-fed bees are the healthiest bees.”

But when the bees don’t get the pollen they need, they become more susceptible to a whole range of problems. “Honeybee nutrition is weather-dependent,” Mussen said. “Their nutrition is likely to be off by either drought or excessive rain, because it affects the mix of quality pollens required to rear healthy bees.”

Northern California has been unusually dry in the past year. As a result, Mussen said, the winter bees didn’t get their usual food of radish and wild mustard, instead feeding first on almond pollen. “And frankly,” he said, “we cannot provide a feed that matches the quality of natural pollens.”

Returning to what scientists know about the disappearing bees, Mussen pointed out that 70 percent of the bees from CCD hives that have been tested were infected by both microbes and fungi. “The bees are fragile,” he said, perhaps as a result of poor nutrition and stress, which makes them less able to resist infections.

Add to that the possibility of neonicotinoid toxicity—nicotine has been shown to have effects on memory, making it possible that bees affected would “forget” how to go home—and there’s a sort of perfect storm that the bees may just not have the resilience to weather. Mussen pointed out that there’s been little work done on toxicity from pesticides containing neonicotinoids. “What we really need is a bee toxicologist,” he said.

Still, he doesn’t expect to find a single specific cause behind CCD. “We’ll learn from all the studies, and it will lead to more research,” Mussen said. “My general suspicion is that it’s a variety of things, all working together.”

That’s not much comfort to a beekeeper. Schubert asked, rather pointedly, if perhaps more attention from the public might help. “If a cattle rancher lost all his stock in one season, or if a sheepman had 56,000 dead or missing animals, the public would be a little more concerned,” he said.

Unfortunately, most people won’t notice the bees are missing until their fruits and vegetables are gone, as well.