Honeybee deaths could take the buzz out of our diet
By Seth Borenstein – AP via Winnipeg Free Press May 3, 2007
Unless someone or something stops it soon, the mysterious killer that is wiping out many of the country's honeybees could have a devastating effect on Americans' dinner plates, perhaps even reducing us to a glorified bread-and-water diet.
Honeybees don't just make honey; they pollinate more than 90 of the tastiest flowering crops we have.
Among them: apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash and cucumbers. And lots of the really sweet and tart stuff, too, including citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and other melons.
About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 per cent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even cattle, which feed on alfalfa, depend on bees. So if the collapse worsens, we could end up being "stuck with grains and water," said Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for USDA's bee and pollination program.
"This is the biggest general threat to our food supply," Hackett said. While not all scientists foresee a food crisis, noting that large-scale bee die-offs have happened before, this one seems particularly baffling and alarming.
U.S. beekeepers in the past few months have lost one-quarter of their colonies -- or about five times the normal winter losses – because of what scientists have dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. The problem started in November and seems to have spread to 27 states, with similar collapses reported in Brazil, Canada and parts of Europe.
Scientists are struggling to figure out what is killing the honeybees, and early results of a key study this week point to some kind of disease or parasite.
Even before this disorder struck, North America's honeybees were in trouble. Their numbers were steadily shrinking, because their genes do not equip them to fight poisons and disease very well, and because their gregarious nature exposes them to ailments that afflict thousands of their close cousins.
Pulitzer Prize-winning insect biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard said the honeybee is nature's "workhorse – and we took it for granted."
"We've hung our own future on a thread," Wilson, author of the book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth told The Associated Press.
Beginning this past fall, beekeepers would open up their hives and find no workers, just newborn bees and the queen. Unlike past bee die-offs, where dead bees would be found near the hive, this time they just disappeared. The die-off takes just one to three weeks.
Last updated 06/05/2007