The global phenomenon of the disappearance of bees

The global phenomenon of the disappearance of bees

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By Luis Miguel Ariza

Dave Hackenberg has been making a living as a beekeeper since 1962, when he decided to start raising honey bees. Their business is transporting their hives across the United States on large trucks.
With his cap pulled down, his sharp nose and his face marked by a life dedicated to the country, Hackenberg travels thousands of kilometers from coast to coast every year with his combs to pollinate the apple orchards of Pennsylvania - where he has his summer home. or the sprawling almond crops of California in early Spring.
In the Fall of 2006, Hackenberg traveled to Florida, where he has his Winter home, so that his bees could take care of fertilizing the extensive pumpkin crops. His colonies were abuzz when he left them, but returning there a month later he was met with the biggest surprise of his life.
More than half of its three thousand combs were deserted, with just the queen bee and a few guardian workers. The surroundings did not show carcasses of bees either. The insects had vanished.
"It was like walking through a ghost town," Hackenberg told Scientific American magazine.
Hackenberg communicated the event to his colleagues, which caused him not a few criticisms. He was quickly branded a careless beekeeper. But soon after, the cases of mysterious disappearances of bees spread among many other colleagues.
These insects have a strong collective meaning, within an exclusively female society that revolves around the queen bee, the mother of the entire community. There are guardians who defend the honeycomb, others who specialize in taking care of the eggs and young, and others who are in charge of bringing food - nectar and pollen - to the hive, making honey.
The abandonment of a hive is an inconceivable behavior: a collective suicide. The terrified beekeepers found no remains of insects, no signs or clues that could explain the tragedy. The bees had inexplicably vanished.
In the Spring of 2007, researchers found that a quarter of American beekeepers had suffered catastrophic losses. But the disaster spread to other countries: Brazil, Canada, Australia, and also in Europe, in France and Spain.
Strange news broke on television such as the disappearance of 10 million bees in Taiwan. Since that Autumn of 2007, mass disappearances have been repeated.
Hackenberg went from careless beekeeper to pioneer, the first to sound the alarm: millions of bees disappear every year. Something is happening.
"Yes, it is a global phenomenon," says Carlo Polidori.
As an expert in hymenoptera behavior and a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences of Madrid, of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Polidori is well aware of the problem.
In Europe, hive losses occur annually at a rate of 20%, he notes with concern. "This year twice as many hives have been lost in England as the previous year."
In Spain, the news before the Hackenberg discovery is even worse.
"Before 1994 there was an annual disappearance of between 5% and 7%," explains Suso Asorey, secretary of the Galician Beekeepers Association (AGA), by email. "As of this date we are between 35% and 40% (of losses)."
The economic importance of honey bees is colossal.
A citation attributed to Einstein circulates on the Internet that suggests that if bees disappeared from Earth today, man could only survive four years. Whether or not this quote is true, there is a part of truth in it that evokes an apocalyptic future.
According to Hackenberg, honey bees are involved in one out of every three bites we put in our mouths. Staple crops such as rice, wheat or barley are pollinated by the wind.
But in a world without bees, a large portion of common supermarket fruits and vegetables would disappear from the shelves. Their prices would be so astronomical that a kilo of apples could cost almost as much as caviar.
"More than 80% of flowering plants are pollinated by animals", remarks Carlo Polidori, researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.
"And more than 30% of crop plants and fruits depend on pollination by bees."
And while there are species of wild bees and bumblebees that do a very important job, the off-road nature of these collective animals makes them the most economically important insect species for man.
Months after Dave Hackenberg's hives occurred, the researchers classified the phenomenon as "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD).
Five years later, the questions remain. Investigators have searched as if they were forensic scientists looking for bodies to examine.
They have performed autopsies on the animals looking for parasites, viruses, and traces of insecticides; They have examined the reproductive capacity of mother bees, and have conducted countless toxicity studies looking for traces of pesticides in pollen grains.

So far, they have not found a single culprit, but they have found many clues, and all disturbing.
The vast fields of monocultures that sustain world agriculture are a continual feast for entire legions of devouring insects.
The only way to keep them at bay is by spraying them with new formulations of increasingly deadly pesticides and insecticides. And these toxic substances could alter the behavior and nervous system of bees.
Specifically, a type of synthetic pesticides - called neonicotinoids - attack the centers of the insects' nervous system. When worker bees go out to collect nectar, they come into contact with these substances, which alter their nervous system.
The animals, disoriented, cannot find their way back to the hive - located miles away - and die far away. This could explain the fact that researchers often find almost empty panels with no bodies around them.
For Suso Asorey, secretary of the Galician Beekeepers Association, "the placing on the market of these neurotoxic and systemic pesticides coincides with the registered losses of up to 40%".
If the legion of workers that leave to collect pollen does not return, the hive does not have enough individuals and is irretrievably doomed to die.

Honey bees

There are about 20,000 species of bees, but honey bees (Apis mellifera) are extraordinary as they pollinate a wide variety of flowers.
Each individual is a biological engineering prodigy: equipped with temperature, carbon dioxide, and oxygen sensors, and their body is designed to charge with static electricity.
When bees collect food on flowers, the pollen grains that stick to them allow pollen from one flower to travel to another, which is fertilized.
The result is a seed and a fruit. The magnitude of the phenomenon is incredible when we examine the collective work. In an average honeycomb there may be about 60 thousand bees, of which 40 thousand go out in search of food.
Each worker makes up to 30 daily departures, and on each trip she can pollinate a total of 50 flowers.
In a single workday, a hive can fertilize millions of flowers.
The calculations of the Galician Beekeepers Association suggest that a single hive is capable of fertilizing the flowers in an area of ​​700 hectares, that is, the equivalent of about 350 soccer fields.

Beekeepers have a new challenge

In the United States, beekeeping has become a business in which hundreds of thousands of hives are transported throughout the country.
One of the events of the year is the pollination of almond tree crops in California. The beekeepers arrive with their big trucks, spray the combs with antibiotics to keep them disease-free and feed the bees glucose syrup.
Due to the loss of animals, bees have been imported from Australia to maintain the Californian almond industry. The insects arrived on board Boeing 747 planes.
Dr. Eric Mussen, of the department of entomology at the University of California at Davis, is both an academic and an expert beekeeper, the ideal bridge between entomological science and the real world, in which beekeepers have domesticated and raised bees for centuries.
"Every country is different, but beekeepers are having a hard time keeping up the number of bees in their colonies," admits Mussen on the other end of the phone.
In the US, he says, most beekeepers are moving away from mass commercial farming. The message from his organic colleagues has gotten through, at least when it comes to handling the animals. Not long ago honeycombs were hauled in wagons together with horses or in poorly conditioned trucks.
But now the hives travel in trailers. According to Mussen, these long journeys do not pose a big problem for the animals, since in just a couple of days they adapt to the place and to the change in schedule.
Imports of bees from other countries have also been suspended in the United States for fear that new diseases will arrive with them. Eric Mussen warns that the percentage of losses at present - between 15% and 20% - is a statistical average, although in the case of some beekeepers it rises to 50% and even 80%.
For Carlo Polidori, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, bees are sending us a message that reminds us of our stupidity. The bees remind us that we are always late ”.

Pollination of bees

let us have



Video: The Truth About the Decline of Honey Bees. Dr. David Tarpy. SHAW Science Colloquium (July 2022).


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