Bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate and continue to vanish without a trace.
Why should anyone care? Well, they matter a lot more than most people would think. With summer upon us, it’s exciting to see the reemergence of some of our favorite produce, including stone fruit, peppers, sweet, juicy melons, and succulent strawberries. But what if the arrival of these crops each summer were to come to an end?
Honeybees, among other pollinators such as bats, birds, butterflies, and bumblebees, are responsible in one way or another for the pollination of approximately 100 crops, according to Dr. Reese Halter, Ph.D., author of The Incomparable Honeybee and distinguished conservation biologist. And they’re not just the fruits of summer; imagine a Thanksgiving, for example, without sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie.
However, the implications of the disappearance of honeybees are not just gastronomic; they are also economic in scope, and in that respect, the scale is significant. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than $15 billion worth of crops are pollinated by bees each year just in the United States alone. Put another way, one of every three bites of food Americans consume comes from a plant visited by bees or other pollinators.
The problem was first observed in France in 1994, following the debut of a new type of pesticide by Bayer, dubbed Gaucho, which was first used on sunflower crops. Gaucho was part of a new class of pesticides known as systemic pesticides, or as Halter refers to them, neonicotinoids.
Bees collecting pollen from sunflowers treated with Gaucho exhibited confused and nervous behavior; thus, the phenomenon was initially termed the "mad bee disease" — the bees, according to Halter, were literally "shaking to death." Furthermore, the bees abandoned their hives, never to return, leaving only the queen behind. Following massive protests by farmers, the French government suspended the use of the pesticide.
In the United States, the phenomenon was first observed in 2006 by a beekeeper, David Hackenberg. Hackenberg and his fellow beekeeper David Mendes testified before Congress about a problem that had become widespread, by then termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) by scientists. No longer were people chalking it up to bad beekeeping; everyone was experiencing the same rapid, catastrophic declines in hive populations in 35 states. And no one could explain why.