Friday, April 22, 2011

Colony Collapse Disorder: Why are the bees buzzing away?

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
Albert Einstein

Last week, I had the opportunity to see a free screening of the documentary “The Vanishing of the Bees” at the Green Metropolis Fair on April 16, 2011 here at the Irish American Heritage Center here in Chicago.

“The Vanishing of the Bees” is one of the newer documentaries on colony collapse disorder. For people not familiar, Colony Collapse Disorder is when worker bees from a beehive abruptly disappear. Why would this be of concern to us humans? Well, we need bees. Without them working their tiny bee bodies to the bone, we would not have fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee chocolate and honey - to name a few. We would all be eating a diet mostly compromised of wheat, corn, rice and potatoes.

Cotton crops are also pollinated by bees. It would be hard for most people to imagine a world without cotton. Most of our clothes and other fabric items we purchased are made out of cotton. They also pollinate the beautiful flowers around us that make our world more beautiful. So, it is easy to see how very important bees are to our world as many things rely on a healthy bee population. When they begin disappearing from their hives, it is a sign to us that something is wrong. Bees have the potential to be considered a keystone indicator species – their disappearance is a symbol of environmental decline.


So, why are our bee friends leaving us? The people behind the documentary “The Vanishing of the Bees” think they have found the answer. But first it is good to look back at when this started: when did the bees first start vanishing? Back in 2006 is when beekeepers noticed a dramatic reduction in their hive numbers. Now, bee like other species can have hive die offs especially in the winter. This is not uncommon but the in 2006 the beekeepers were noticing 30 – 90% decline in their hives. This was cause for concern to research what was causing this.

There have been lots of theories since 2006: cell phones, malnutrition, beekeeping practices, lack of genetic biodiversity, parasites, pathogens, toxins, electromagnetic radiation and climate change. None of these theories are completely proven because it is such a complex issue. There was no definite answer.

Pesticides and GMOS. These are the two suspects under interrogation in the film most specifically systematic pesticides. How are systematic pesticides different from conventional pesticides? Well, according to Mother Earth News, a non-systematic pesticide will just cover the exterior of the plant and they can be washed off. A systematic pesticide is put into the seed of the plant so it is found in the entire plant as it grows. The reason why systematic pesticides cannot be washed off like conventional pesticides is because the pesticides are inside the tissues of the plant – they basically become part of the plant. Systematic pesticides began to be used on plants in 1998. And where do the GMO’s come in to play here? For those not in the know, GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms” - basically where the bees are concerned these are seeds for crops that bees pollinated that have had their genes modified in a lab. The largest crops that are currently GMO are cotton, soy, corn, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa. The decline of bees has been noticed particularly in areas where GMO crops are grown. GMO seeds grow pesticides inside the plant. GMO’s also entered our food supply sometimes in the mid to late 1990’s.

How does this affect the bees? High levels of these pesticides were found in pollen on the legs of bees. This pollen was gathered off of plants which utilized these pesticides. In turn, the toxic pollen is brought back to the hive. These pesticides are known to cause nerve damage – thus resulting in confused and disorientated bees. Could this be one of the reasons bees are buzzing away from their hives? They are dazed and confused? Certainly makes some sense – but what about the die-offs? Well, pesticides are toxic – if they are meant to kill off bugs and other agricultural pests – why would they not kill off bees? The answer seems almost too clear to ignore.

“Yummy, Yummy, organic plants feel good in my bee tummy!”
Photo above by KimKat


Imagining a world without bees is horrible indeed. But out of this crisis as sparked a new interest in an old movement as illustrated by the film: local organic beekeeping. Not that this practice is entirely new, as we know farmers kept their own bees for centuries probably back to the 5th century in China before we had pesticides. But the recent scare of bee population decline and the possible link to pesticides and GMOs has sparked a new interest in this sort of beekeeping, even amongst urban dwellers which is new because normally we think of beehives out in the country on a farm. Organic beekeeping (or natural beekeeping) by small groups or individuals will maintain a small colony either for use in producing their own local honey or to have their own local bees to pollinate their own organic gardens.

This can be seen in Chicago today. It is now not a completely unusual site to see a beehive on rooftop with a rooftop garden. Beekeeping classes can be found at the Garfield Park Conservatory, The Chicago Honey Co-op and various other places in the Chicagoland area. There even are beehives on the roof of City Hall. Local area restaurants are also getting in on the movement by using only local honey in their dishes.

If you wanted to start your own hive but don’t have a place to put it (or your neighbors would look badly on you for it!), than The Chicago Honey Co-op, a 60-hive apiary in the North Lawndale neighborhood, is the answer. Beekeepers can buy a hive, learn beekeeping and keep in there and tend it themselves or the co-op can take care of it for you. The only rule is that you can’t use any chemicals in your hives. They also have a community farm next store where anyone can plant as long as, again, no chemicals are used.

So it isn’t just about honey and making money off your honey but the health of the bees. Healthy bees pollinating a chemical free garden equals healthy produce for people to eat. It also means a healthier planet. Who wants to eat all those chemicals anyway, raise your hands? Hmm…the air looks empty? Except for all the bees buzzing around...

So next time a bee comes buzzing near you, don’t run away screaming – thank him for all the work he does for you and promise him you will buy organic.

The Vanishing of the Bees Film:

Garfield Park Conservatory:

The Chicago Honey Co-op

List of crop pollinated by bees:

Information on Systemic Pesticides:

"Buzzy" the Protesting Bee illustrations are original designs by KimKat - please do not copy without permission