Seeing Green: Buzzkill

Opinion by Holly Moeller
May 5, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

Seeing Green: BuzzkillAs a teaching assistant for the pilot section of Bio 44Y, I spend Wednesday afternoons accompanying 10 students of field ecology to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Only five miles from the main quad, we’ve battled rattlesnakes and squeezed past poison oak — but the nearest I’ve come to disaster was almost letting a wasp fly into our class van.

When we’re worried about being stung (knock on wood, I’ve so far evaded the experience), we tend to see bees and wasps as the flying enemy, rather than as pollinators, critical to the reproductive life of most of the world’s flowering plants. Of course, the value of pollination isn’t lost on farmers or beekeepers: the former pay the latter to haul hivefuls of bees from crop field to orchard every spring.

The inhabitants of these hives are European honeybees, first imported to the Americas in 1607. Today, about three million colonies are kept in wooden hives across the United States; half visit California every April to pollinate $2-billion-worth of almonds before heading north and west to Washington orchards or Montana honey farms. On the East Coast, bees are trucked from Florida orange groves to Maine blueberry patches every year. The USDA estimates that this pollination adds $15 billion in value to U.S. crops each year. And countless backyard gardeners and small-scale farmers reap similar benefits from local, wild hives.

Up at Jasper Ridge or here on main campus, bees operate with great focus and intensity. It’s hard to imagine anything interfering with their nectar-gathering mission. But bees get sick, too. Tracheal mites clog bee airways; fungal infections starve bee larvae. Every winter, beekeepers anticipate a loss of 15 percent of their healthy hives.

Suddenly, in 2006, mortality spiked. Beekeepers who’d moved their hives to Florida’s sunnier climes to overwinter returned to find 30-90 percent of their hives abandoned: a queen and her immature brood might remain, but all the adult workers were gone. These workers were nowhere to be found, and without them, the hives starved.

Over subsequent years, hive mortality has hovered near 33 percent — double the normal rate — and scientists have christened the mysterious disappearing act “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD.

Five years after CCD was first reported, its causes remain mysterious.

Recent molecular analyses implicate the Varroa mite-borne Israeli acute paralysis virus, which is highly correlated with CCD. But other research highlights the combined attack of a fungus, Nosema ceranae, and virus, Iridoviridae. Alternate hypotheses include pesticide toxicity, combinations of all of the above and (totally unsupported by science) cell phone interference.

The jury’s still out on the causes of CCD, but beekeepers have apparently been quick to respond. Although the number of kept hives has been falling for decades, there’s been no change in the rate of decline attributable to CCD. Nor have the prices of apples, pears or almonds spiked — at least no more than can be explained by inflation and rising transportation (i.e. fuel) costs. So far, bees are still doing their jobs, and beekeepers are managing to replace hives lost to CCD by splitting existing hives or purchasing new colonies from queen breeders.

Despite the lack of acute economic consequences, scientists and beekeepers are deeply alarmed. Such dramatic mortality, even if not immediately devastating, highlights the vulnerability of our agricultural and economic systems. For example, colonies trucked up and down the country each year experience unique transportation stresses. And, just as businessmen on planes carry contagious diseases across oceans, bee colonies moved thousands of miles between pollination customers can quickly circulate new diseases throughout the beekeeper community.

Our globalized world comes with a huge suite of immediate benefits: production efficiency, exchange of ideas, expert specialization. But each of these benefits is also a cost — to the stability and resilience of our lifestyles. If Colony Collapse Disorder were twice as devastating and pollinators-for-hire couldn’t meet demand, our native pollinators couldn’t shoulder the load. If our transit system failed, New Yorkers would go hungry and Californians would go thirsty.

Our high-tech lifestyles necessitate highly specific training: I struggle to talk to my students about their sociology courses and it’s even easy for me to get out of my scientific depth. This works fine if we can always phone-a-friend with particular expertise. But the less we know about something, the less likely we are to know who to call and, eventually, the less we respect the subject matter compared to our own specialty. (For example, my stinger-centered feelings about the wasp hovering by the van door, compared to newfound respect after reading up on pollinator biology for this column.)

Of course, it’s impossible to hold all the world’s knowledge in a single mind. So the trick is learning how to respect things we don’t understand, while still being able to recognize misdirection. In other words, we need to be specialized enough to do our jobs, but broadly educated enough to recognize the difference between being (as my Dad would say) blinded by brilliance or baffled with BS.

We must be the beekeeper who knows how to compensate for his losses, the biologist who knows which diseases to look for, the biochemist who knows how to screen for them or, most importantly, the missing link that brings all these pieces together.

Wish this column would buzz off? Or want to cross-pollinate with your own ideas? Contact Holly at [email protected] with your thoughts.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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