Thursday, July 24, 2008

First the birds, now the bees

I am working up in Bloomsbury this week, at the Bloomsbury Summer School - something I do every year. However it is very much of an early morning to late evening enterprise and it means that I haven’t been able to visit the parks over the last week. Hopefully I’ll get over there at the weekend when I don’t think I have any other commitments, but I’ll be back at Bloomsbury next week too, and probably trying to fit in a Predynastic conference at the same time.

So here’s another gap filler to prove that I am still alive and the blog is still very much on my agenda. Not birds this time, but bees. I was in Waterstones raiding the second hand academic book section yesterday and picked up a copy of The Week (19th July 2008 issue) which has an article in its Briefing slot entitled “The strange, sad fate of the honey bee”.

Anyone who has been watching the news over recent months will be aware that the honey bee (Apis melllifera) is in real trouble. At the end of 2006 a mysterious disease termed Colony Collapse Disorder swept across the U.S.. The symptoms of CCD are that most of the bees leave the hive leaving behind only the queens and eggs wit a few immature worker bees. The bees that abandon the hives are never found and are thought to die one by one. Those that are left die, and all other insects and potential honey thieves avoid the remaining hive.

The article says that between September 2006 and March 2007 almost a third of all honey bee colonies had collapsed in 15 American states. The problem is not restricted to America, although that’s where most of the attention has focused. Other regions experiencing the same problem are Canada, South America, Asia and Europe. The article quotes two startling examples: 5 million bees were reported to have vanished in a period of 48 hours in Croatia, and 10 million vanished in Taiwan last year. One of the odd things about it is that it can hit one set of hives but not a neighbouring set. It has been estimated that if they continue to vanish at their current rate there will be none left in the US by 2035.

The long term impact of the decline of the bee, if the trend continues, is not only that honey supplies will be impacted, but that the food chain may be seriously disrupted. Bees are the principal pollinators of flowers. Without bee pollination the knock-on effects are serious, because more than 90 commercial agricultural crops, from apples to onions, are pollinated by bees. Grasses are wind-pollinated and would continue to survive, but the damage to flower, fruit and vegetables would mean that there would be much less food to go around for birds and mammals.

One of the worrying things about CCD is that researchers do not understand what is causing it. They believe that the bees’ immune systems may be damaged but the causes of that remain something that needs far more research. The theories are there but they need testing.

There have been cases reported in the UK, and the environment ministry has stepped up its investigations.

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