The Importance of Bees to Our Food Supply

By Rowan Jacobsen, "...or Not to Bee," March/April 2009

If honeybees disappear, they’ll take some of our healthiest foods with them.

A Mystery Disease

We can’t say for certain that Olson’s bees had CCD, because we still don’t know what CCD is. We just know what it looks like, and it looks like Ed Olson’s experience in the almonds that spring: hives that had been in superb condition suddenly depopulate, with the adult bees disappearing from the hive until all that’s left is honeycomb filled with young bee larvae and honey.

Theories abound about what is causing CCD. Cell phones were an early suspect, based on nothing more than the results of one mistranslated German study of cordless phones. Genetically modified crops were another rumored culprit, despite studies showing that bees thrived on GMO corn. Neither of these proved true. Other causes that do seem to be associated with collapsed colonies include pesticides, newly introduced viruses, fungi and poor colony nutrition. Congress has earmarked a few million dollars for research to get to the heart of the problem, but the money has yet to start trickling out, and results are years away. The bees might be able to wait that long, but we can’t.

“That’s the crux of CCD,” says Olson. “The bee population can eventually recover from disease losses, but American agriculture depends upon gypsy beekeepers to provide the spark of pollination to start the engine of food production.” About 35 percent of the food we eat—$15 billion worth of produce in the United States and $215 billion worldwide—would not exist without pollinators. Once we had thousands of native insects that provided all our pollination needs, but habitat destruction and the ever-increasing size of industrial farms have put most of our crops out of reach of wild bugs. The only way to bring pollination to these plants is to truck it in, and the honeybee is the only pollinator that will endure such a domesticated lifestyle. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen how many beekeepers can endure their mounting economic losses. “Bees can be replaced relatively quickly,” says Olson; “out-of-business beekeepers can’t.”

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