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The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
By Rowan Jacobsen
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One BREAKFAST IN AMERICA
I'm standing in my kitchen on a July morning, serving up breakfast for my family. Honey-Nut O's for my son, almond granola for my wife and me, all piled high with blueberries and cherries. Wedges of melon, glasses of apple cider, and mugs of coffee on the side. It's a delicious breakfast, its colors, textures, and flavors a feast for the senses. And it wouldn't exist without honey bees. Take away the bees and we'd be left with nothing but wind-pollinated oats and maybe some milk to wet them.
Berries, cherries, melons, and apples are all fruits, you see, and fruits are special. Almonds and other nuts are simply the large seeds inside fruits. (Almonds are in the family of stone fruits, like peaches and plums, and do have a fruit around them, but it's inedible. With a peach you eat the flesh and discard the nut; with an almond the reverse.) Coffee beans come wrapped in fruit jackets, too. Even many of the foods we think of as vegetables-cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers and squash-are fruits. And fruits, unlike true vegetables, or meat, or just about anything else we eat, want to be eaten. Nature has designed them-with a little help from human plant breeders-to be as eye-catching and irresistibly delicious to animals as possible.
And they are. No matter how many rungs up the industrial food chain I sit, no matter how far removed from my primate roots, I still react to the dazzling sapphire of a ripe blueberry in a satisfyingly primitive way. My mouth waters, my hands reach, and I am its slave. My nine-year-old son, a full-fledged frugivore, will hurry past cakes and cookies to get to a plate of pink, juicy watermelon.
The plan, which is certainly working on us, is that the animals eat the fruit and unwittingly spread the plant's seeds around-a major challenge for an immobile life-form. It's an ancient covenant, one that has served them and us well, and one that's still fairly obvious, since not so long ago we primates were playing a significant role in the process.
But there is another covenant, equally essential and much easier for us to overlook because it rarely involves large creatures. We've done a spectacular job of ignoring it across all levels of society, with catastrophic consequences that are only now beginning to hit home.
The basic story of plant life, familiar to every grade-schooler, is that the plant grows and has a flower, and the flower turns into a seed-bearing fruit, and the fruit falls to the ground, where the cycle starts all over again. In the common imagination, the process happens all on its own. The fruit is the event. The flower is nothing really, just the herald of the fruit. Eye candy. Growing up, I don't think I even connected the flower and the fruit. Flowers grew along roadsides-daisies and hawkweed and Queen Anne's lace. Fruit came from the supermarket. They were two things trees and weeds produced, not necessarily related.
But, of course, flowers are not there to please landscape artists. They are supremely functional, and their function is sex. Flowers' purpose is to swap genetic material with other individuals of the same species and reproduce. When that happens successfully, a fruit grows out of the flower.
No flower, no fruit. It's that simple.
The presence of a flower doesn't guarantee fruit. Most flowers have male and female parts. The anthers-the long filaments with pads on the end-hold grains of pollen, the plant equivalent of sperm. To make a fruit, that pollen needs to be carried to the stigma, the central column that is the female receptor. From there, it can combine with the ovule-the plant equivalent of an egg-in the ovary (usually hidden within the flower). A seed is born, and fruit is soon to follow.
Some flowers can use their own pollen to fertilize their ovules, but this doesn't accomplish the gene mixing that is the whole point of sexual reproduction, so most can be fertilized only by the pollen from a different individual. The trick is to get the pollen from one flower to another. A few of our food plants-primarily corn, oats, and the other grains-use wind to do the job. Make vast quantities of powdery, flyweight pollen, cast it to the winds, and cross one's metaphorical fingers, it's like direct mail, or Internet spam: You need to send out a million if you hope to get a single hit. When your car is caked in yellow pine pollen, or your nasal passages are swollen with ragweed pollen, you can be sure that a wind pollinator is broadcasting.
Direct mail is pretty wasteful, so most of our food plants rely on courier service instead. Somebody picks up the pollen package from one flower and delivers it directly to another flower of the same species. Most birds and mammals aren't going to fit this bill; they are way too big to handle sand-sized grains of pollen. Insects, on the other hand, are perfect.
For 150 million years, insects have served as sexual handmaidens to the flowering plants. Most plants on earth today can't reproduce without them. Of course, they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It takes a bribe. Protein-rich pollen makes good health food, but nectar-energy-rich sugar water contained in tiny wells in most flowers-seals the deal. The bugs visit the flower to drink the nectar and in the process brush against the sticky pollen grains, which become attached to them. When the bugs fly to the next flower for more nectar, some of the pollen is transferred to the new stigma. Wham, barn, thank you, ma'am.
Thousands of insect species feed on nectar and pollen. Some 80 million years ago, one group of them, the bees, made it a specialty. Of the twenty thousand species of bees, only one has become a true artisan of nectar, developing a worldwide human culture around itself. That insect is Apis mellifera, the honey bee. And how this one life-form wound up shouldering so much of the industrial food chain on its tiny back is one of the subjects of this book.
When we think of productive human-animal partnerships, we tend to think of the dog or the horse. The dog can't lay claim to more than improving our quality of life, plus a bit of guard duty and seeing-eye work, but the horse brought agriculture, not to mention transportation, to a whole new level. Yet fossil fuel technology relegated the horse to country fair sideshows. The same cannot be said about the honey bee. In fact, as industrial agriculture has come to dominate world production, and as exotic crops were grown on new continents, it has been forced to rely more and more heavily on middle-aged men with their wooden boxes of bees and tin smokers. This is an astonishing Achilles' heel for industries increasingly devoted to high-tech solutions.
It's also quite wonderful. To witness an orchard full of bees merrily nuzzling flowers and packing honey into the hive-"on the flow," as beekeepers say-is to feel that all is right with the world. We may not get food from flowers, as bees do, but at some primordial level, we share the same tastes. We are attracted to the same shapes, scents, and colors. We may not be able to "get" a fly or a dung beetle, but we get a bee.
And we admire them. The techniques bees have developed to help in their mission (dancing, navigation, pheromone communication), the extraordinary array of products they make (honey, propolis, wax, royal jelly), and the amazing social structure of the hive are all signs of an estimable intelligence wholly unlike the human variety and well worth comprehending. Bees can do things no other creature can.
For now, suffice it to say that plenty of varieties of insect are capable of pollinating the blueberries stippling my son's cereal (even the black fly, pariah of the Northeast, contributes), but only honey bees come in convenient, mobile boxes of fifty thousand and have a passion for hoarding concentrated nectar in astonishing quantities. This passion has given us the natural miracle of honey, but it also means that a hive of honey bees can cross-pollinate twenty-five million flowers in a single day. Try plucking solitary black flies or hummingbirds out of the air and exhorting them to do the same. Honey bees are the most enthusiastic, best-organized migrant farmworkers the planet has ever seen, and today the majority of U.S. bees spend the year traveling the country on the backs of flatbeds, fertilizing America's crops.
But why do we need them? Didn't these crops exist before rent-a-pollinator?
The reason you need migrant workers of any kind is because no one local will do the job. In many human communities, there aren't enough locals left to work the crops. With insects, it's the same. A vast monocrop of California almonds leaves no natural habitat where wild insects could live. If a New Jersey blueberry farm is hemmed by suburbs, it's probably out of the three-mile range of any local, stationary honey bees. If flower sex is to happen in such landscapes, bussed honey bees are the only option. Large-scale agriculture can no longer exist without them.
It used to be that beekeepers were the ones begging farmers to let them set their hives in a field or grove. An acre of apple blossoms is a windfall for a honey bee colony. The farmer got his apples fertilized, and the beekeeper fed his flock and got his honey. Everybody won. Usually no money changed hands. For years, however, due to a complicated mix of factors that we'll explore in later chapters, honey bee populations have been crashing in Europe and America, while the acres of crops needing pollination have expanded. The free market kicked in: Too many crops and not enough pollination equals farmers desperate to get some honey bees in their fields and willing to pay for it.
The whole situation snuck up on us. A century ago cranberry growers were already observing that their yield doubled if a hive was nearby, but for most of human history hives have always been nearby. In Europe up through the nineteenth century, a hive or two was kept on every farm. Many old stone houses still have niches in their outer walls for beehives. Pollination was plentiful.
When Europeans settled the New World, they brought apple trees with them, but, removed from their Old World habitats and pollination partners, many of the trees fared poorly. In settlements that also imported honey bee hives, however, apple trees took off-so successfully that most people assume they are native (as American as apple pie). Fortunately (for both the settlers and the apple trees) honey bees were popular with the colonists. They had been introduced to Virginia by 1622 and Massachusetts by 1639, and had covered the East Coast (by swarm or human transport) before long. A British officer in the Revolutionary War wrote that in Pennsylvania "almost every farmhouse has 7 or 8 hives of bees." George Washington kept hives at Mount Vernon in 1787. By then, people were already forgetting that bees hadn't always been on the scene, though Thomas Jefferson tried to set the record straight: "The honeybee is not a native of our country ... The Indians concur with us in the tradition that it was brought from Europe, but when and by whom we know not. The bees have generally extended themselves into the country a little in advance of the settlers. The Indians, therefore, call them the white man's fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites."
Both the white men and the bees kept coming. Washington Irving's book A Tour on the Prairies includes his account of an 1832 honey hunt in Oklahoma, about as far as honey bees had advanced at that point:
It is surprising in what countless swarms the bees have overspread the Far West within but a moderate number of years. The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and buffalo retire. We are always accustomed to associate the hum of the bee-hive with the farmhouse and flower-garden, and to consider those industrious little animals as connected with the busy haunts of man, and I am told that the wild bee is seldom to be met with at any great distance from the frontier. They have been the heralds of civilization, steadfastly preceding it as it advanced from the Atlantic borders, and some of the ancient settlers of the West pretend to give the very year when the honey-bee first crossed the Mississippi. The Indians with surprise found the mouldering trees of their forests suddenly teeming with ambrosial sweets, and nothing, I am told, can exceed the greedy relish with which they banquet for the first time upon this unbought luxury of the wilderness.
As settlers spread across the continent, they did so in partnership with the honey bee, whose omnivorous tastes allowed a multitude of European and Asian fruits and vegetables to thrive. The New World was to their liking. The pioneers, having little concept of pollination, probably never questioned why their European crops flourished in the New World. They just happened to have the bees around for honey. They had unwittingly brought a particularly European fertility with them.
At times, the ignorance was so astounding that it's a wonder American agriculture didn't collapse under the weight of its own stupidity. Well into the twentieth century, many parts of America believed that bees robbed plants of their vitality. Utah even passed a law in 1929 banning the import of honey bees into the state because they "took the nectar required by the alfalfa blossoms to set seed."
This misinformation persisted despite Easterners having long observed that fruit was choicer and more abundant in areas near hives. John Harvey Lovell's 1919 book, The Flower and the Bee, describes hives being placed in cranberry bogs, just as they are today, and even in cucumber greenhouses. "Without bees or hand-pollination, not a cucumber would be produced." For apples, he describes an eerily familiar scene as he explains why wild bees are not sufficient pollinators:
With the planting of orchards by the square mile, their number became wholly inadequate to pollinate efficiently this vast expanse of bloom. This difficulty is met by the introduction of colonies of the domestic bee. No other insect is so well adapted for this purpose. In numbers, diligence, perception and apparatus for carrying pollen it has no equal. In orchard after orchard the establishment of apiaries has been followed by an astonishing gain in the fruit-crop; and today it is generally admitted that honey bees and fruit culture must go together.
And so they have. By allowing planting patterns that could never exist in nature, and adapting to a wide variety of environments, the honey bee has been something of a landscape architect of the American pastoral, remaking the countryside in its own vision. Farmers worried about land and water and sun, but they never had to think about the bugs that would set their fruit. After World War II, as machinery and pesticides enabled farms to expand from family operations into vast enterprises, rented honey bees became indispensable to many farms.
What was a nice little sideline in the 1960s became the chief source of income for many commercial beekeepers by the 1990s. Fertility is at a premium. No beekeeper is eager to truck his bees around the country, but as world honey prices disintegrated in the face of cheap Chinese competition, beekeepers found that they couldn't survive on honey alone. Pollination filled the gap-first locally, then farther and farther afield as beekeepers confronted a choice between a migratory business and no business at all.
America didn't invent migratory beekeeping. Egyptians followed the bloom up and down the Nile thousands of years ago, floating their hives on barges. Europeans used the Danube, mules, and their own backs, always seeking to extend the season. But only in America did tractor trailers and five-thousand-mile circuits become commonplace.
Then, in fall 2006, the corroded bottom finally fell out of the American beekeeping barrel. A mysterious syndrome began wiping out honey bee colonies from coast to coast. The number of hives, which had been at 6 million during World War II, and 2.6 million in 2005, fell below 2 million for the first time in memory. Soon the syndrome had a name as vague as its cause: colony collapse disorder. By the time the media got wind of the syndrome, it was just called CCD.
Excerpted from FRUITLESS FALL by Rowan Jacobsen Copyright © 2008 by Rowan Jacobsen. Excerpted by permission.
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