The Importance Of Bee-ing Local

About a year and a half ago, beekeepers along the East Coast started to notice that bees were missing.  Over the course of a week, the majority of the bees in a given hive would take off, get lost, and die.  The few bees remaining were severely diseased with “virtually every known bee virus…some carrying five or six viruses at a time, as well as fungal infections.”  Yum!

Theories about what might be causing the bee colony collapse disorder (the dramatic new name affixed to the disaster after ‘dwindle disease’ was judged too mild) abounded, increasing in ridiculousness day by day as the panic mounted.  Invasive varroa mite, the EPA guessed.  MSNBC thought the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus might be responsible. Others blamed radiation from cell phones. 

“In some ways it might be to the insect world what foot-and-mouth disease was to livestock in England,” said Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Penn.  An estimated quarter of the nation’s bee colonies expired en masse, and the prices of renting honeybees for pollination purposes quadrupled.   (This year, the beekeepers have a new problem: “bee bandits” who, realizing that the hives have become “a sitting gold mine,” steal them in the middle of the night.)

The ins and outs of bee colony collapse disorder remain somewhat of a mystery, although the cell phone and mite theories have pretty much bitten the dust.  Prevailing thought—common sense, really—maintains that working bees as intensively as we now do has stressed and diseased them to the point of implosion.  “Add this to their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides [and close contact with bees that harbor foreign microbes and parasites] and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in December 2007.

The episode made headlines, but it should have made more; in fact, we should still be talking about it, and make very sure that nothing like it ever happens again.  So much of what we eat—the pollination for more than 90 commercial crops—depends on honeybees, and the value of their pollination is calculated at nearly $15 billion.  They’re like the coal-mine canary of the American agricultural food system, and their demise would be an absolute disaster.

Which is why, if you’ve an unused corner of backyard, you might consider getting some bees yourself.  There’ll be a bit of an initial investment in equipment, but it’ll last for ages, and the gorgeous golden nectar pouring out of your hive will make it all worthwhile.  It’s ironic to think of something with as painful a sting as providing security, but diversifying our national cache of bees, flagstones of our food system is the best way to assure that they continue to feed us. 

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