Issue 89 • Week of October 1, 2023
Seventeen years ago this month, colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first documented and suddenly cast doubt on the future viability of beekeepers and their honeybees. These unsung heroes of our agricultural system pollinate one third of US crops. Suddenly, their normal, sustainable rate of colony loss of 15% became imperiled as apiaries reported that between 30-90% of honeybees never returned to their hives.
CCD was hardly our first cause for concern. A quarter of US bee colonies were lost between 1990-1995 due to insecticide known as Penncap-M, while the destructive side effects of DDT still linger around the world. Mites have also wreaked havoc on pollinators.
However, real images of people in China performing the back-breaking work of pollination by hand finally seemed to have shook the public consciousness into realizing that perhaps our use of pesticides in industrial agriculture had gone too far.
Our agricultural systems have not ground to a halt thus far – ironically perhaps thanks to another widespread fear. "Killer bees" from Africa generated hysteria in the 1990s due to their aggressive behavior until their traits calmed as they bred with existing American honeybee populations (which are actually not native and were imported by Europeans in the 1600s). The Africanized bees appear to be more resistant to CCD, so their escape from an experiment in 1950s Brazil may have been ultimately fortuitous.
But we're not in the clear yet. This year was the second worst ever for US beekeepers.
Every generation since the introduction of modern pesticides and herbicides has forgotten the risks involved with endangering bees and other pollinators. Awareness is raised, behaviors might change temporarily, and then people revert to the status quo only for the problem to repeat again.
How can we prevent future colony loss and return to balance in our ecosystem?
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