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The Buzz

May 2, 2008

  You may have seen the new Haagen-Dazs ad, the one with operatic music and the dramatic shot of a bee courting a bright red flower, only to be pushed away by stormy winds (if you haven’t, it’s worth checking out at this blog. The ad cuts to a matter-of-fact voice that says honeybees are dying, and asks you, the viewer, to help Haagen-Dazs save them.  

  Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD; not to be confused with OCD) occurs when a hive loses all or most of its adults. Hives die off every now and again, its natural. But what makes CCD odd is the condition of the hive-there is still honey in the comb and the queen bee and a whole bunch of immature bees are still in the hive, alive. The adult bees are gone, but there is no sign of dead bees anywhere near the hive. Without adult bees to collect nectar, make honey, defend the hive and tend to the queen, the hive is doomed. And without the hive, individual bees are doomed.

  A lot of researchers are puzzling over the cause of the collapses. Are the bees succumbing to something natural, like a new pathogen or virus, or are we causing the colonies to collapse? Is it overexposure to pesticides or the stress of constantly moving hives from one pollination job to another? How about poor nutrition, either from overcrowding within the hive or from making bees pollinate plants with nutritionally-poor nectar (like pear trees)?

  Whatever the cause, CCD is a big deal. Apart from producing honey, the bees’ major contribution to our health and well-being is through pollination of various crops. Worker bees (the ones that leave the hive in search of flowers and nectar) visit anywhere between 50 and 100 flowers in a given trip. When a bee lands on the flower, it’s looking for the good stuff:  the nectar. It sucks up the nectar (a mix of sugars and water) and stores it in a nectar pouch inside its body. In the process, the little hairs on the bee’s body come into contact with the pollen from the flower. The pollen is sticky and clings to the bee, to be deposited on the next flower the bee visits. Pollination achieved.

  The US Department of Agriculture estimates that honey bee pollination adds close to 15 billion dollars in crop value to the U.S. food industry. Almonds, apples and blueberries are major beneficiaries of the humble honey bee, not to mention broccoli, carrots, cherries and pears. The almond crop alone in California requires the pollinating efforts of more than 1.3 million colonies.  

  Honey bee pollination is a commercial enterprise. Colonies are trucked all over the nation, plopped down in the middle of a farmer’s field and left to do their magic. When the job is done, the colonies are put back on the truck and driven to the next field where they start pollinating a new set of crops. In short, just like you can rent a back-hoe to dig a ditch you can rent bees to pollinate your farm or orchard.

  Honey bees aren’t the only ones that go from flower to flower. In fact, they aren’t even native to North America-the colonists brought them over from Europe. Bumblebees, butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and many other insects, mammals and birds also help pollinate our crops, but there is no question that honey bees are the most efficient of the lot. In fact, experts say that honey bee pollination contributes to one out of every three bites of food we eat.


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