the artificial maintainence of "unnatural" pollination?
"No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

-- Famous "Misattribu-letion" of Albert Einstein.

The bogus cell phone issue aside, I'm wondering whether some of the scary stories about honeybee decline aren't being sexed up (if not based upon hype).

First of all, regardless of what the cause of the bee malady is (and clearly something is wrong), it's striking domestic migratory honeybees.

The latter are by no means all bees, and while honeybee populations have been in decline for years, they constitute a minority of natural pollinators:

There are more than 3500 species of solitary bees in North America. Also called pollen bees or native bees, these efficient pollinators often do the lion's share of pollinating crops. Pollen bees have a number of advantages over honeybees as pollinators (1). Many are active early in the spring, before honeybee colonies reach large size (1). Pollen bees tend to stay in a crop rather than fly between crops, providing more efficient pollination (1). Because they fly rapidly, pollen bees can pollinate more plants (1). Unlike honeybees, the males also pollinate the crop (1). Pollen bees are usually gentle, with a mild sting, and do not get disoriented in greenhouses (1).

The drastic decline in feral and domestic honeybees in the last few years, because of decimation by Varroa mites, has made it even more important to conserve and study wild bee populations. Dr. Hachiro Shimanuki, head of the USDA's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, has charted a 25 percent decline in managed honeybees in the last decade (2). Although the number of pollen bees has also declined, due to pesticide use and habitat destruction, pollen bees are unaffected by mites and Africanized bees, and many can be managed and used in commercial agriculture.

Often, growers don't realize the amount of pollination that is performed by native bees, and signs of inadequate pollination are often misinterpreted as weather problems or disease. Dr. Suzanne Batra of the USDA's Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland conducted a three-year study to discover the natural mix of bees in a West Virginia forest (3). She found that, of the 1700 bees trapped in the first year of the study, only 34 were honeybees. This means that pollen bees were performing almost all pollination.

Pollen bees perform most pollination?

I realize the study involved forests and not farms, but I didn't know that, and it certainly isn't being made clear in most of the news reports.

However, the role of honeybees as pollinators may be exaggerated, as in this report from the Bangor Daily News seems to indicate:

On the East Coast, where a more ec ologically diverse farming landscape enhances diversity, studies have shown that wild pollinators were doing about 90 percent of the pollinating anyway, Neal Williams, an assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, reported in recent research.

Meanwhile, a Canadian study suggested that if canola farmers leave 30 percent of their land fallow, they will increase their yields. Wild land provides habitat for native pollinators, improving pollination and increasing the number of seeds.

"If we cultivate all the land, we lose ecosystem services like pollination," Lora Morandin, lead author on the study, stated in her research. "Healthy, sustainable agricultural systems need to include natural land."

Florida is a favorite wintering place for honeybees and was the first state to report the disease.

Wait a second. We are being told that this is an impending disaster, that the nation's crops will be ruined, with Einstein's warnings about the end of the world often thrown in gratuitously.

And yet the die-off has been going on for many years and involves migratory bees -- and honeybees at that -- which by no means account for all of the pollination.

Something does not make sense.

Contrast the above with this CNN report:

(CNN) -- One third of all our food -- fruits and vegetables -- would not exist without pollinators visiting flowers. But honeybees, the primary species that fertilizes food-producing plants, have suffered dramatic declines in recent years, mostly from afflictions introduced by humans.
Until today I had not researched this at all. And, ignorant layman that I may be, I do know that according to elementary logic, honeybees cannot be the primary pollinator if wild pollinators are doing the majority of the pollinating.

Or are these "stories" just reported uncritically without a thought given to whether they're inconsistent?

Please bear in mind that I have no bias here, as I am not a beekeeper, a farmer, an environmentalist, an angry anti-bee vegan, or a journalist. Yeah, well, I am blogger, and I do admit to having certain issues where it comes to being lied to, but I really don't want to just start assuming that nearly everything I read is some sort of lying spin cranked out for the benefit of one special interest or another.

Should I?

For now, I think it's at least safe to say that the bee that's experiencing the CCD problem is the Western Honeybee -- a hybrid bee originally introduced into the Americas in the 17th century and improved upon since. They've been suffering from diseases and declines for years, but have been kept going with miticides:

North American and European honey bee populations were severely depleted by varroa mite infestations in the early 1990s. Chemical treatments saved most commercial operations and improved cultural practices and bee breeds are starting to reduce the dependency on miticides (acaracides) by beekeepers. Feral bee populations were greatly reduced during this period but now are slowly recovering, mostly in areas of mild climate, owing to natural selection for varroa resistance and repopulation by resistant breeds. Further, Insecticides, particularly when used in violation of label directions, have also depleted bee populations[citation needed], while various bee pests and diseases are becoming resistant to medications (e.g. American Foul Brood, Tracheal Mites and Varroa Mites).

In North America, Africanized bees have spread across the southern United States where they pose a small danger to humans, although they may make beekeeping (particularly hobby beekeeping) difficult and potentially dangerous. North American populations of honey bees are disappearing in 2006/2007 in greater than expected numbers.[4] This phenomenon has been tentatively dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. Other researchers have disputed the allegation that the season's winter losses are statistically higher than expected given the prior season's weather and stores and normal disease patterns.

I'm sorry, but none of this sounds as scary as the stories I've been reading. Clearly, the migratory beekeepers have a problem, but is it catastrophic? For their industry, maybe. Remember, they do charge to haul the hives around and set them up:
Modern hives also enable beekeepers to transport bees, moving from field to field as the crop needs pollinating and allowing the beekeeper to charge for the pollination services they provide.
What makes no sense to me was to read that pollen bees can perform (and are performing) so much of the pollination. If that is true, then is it possible that farmers have grown overly dependent on paid beekeepers setting up hives?

As I said, bees just aren't my issue. Normally, I'd have probably ignored this whole thing (which is not a new issue), but that phony Einstein quote set me off.

If I had more time, I'd look into why the wild Africanized bees seem to be immune to CCD. Or why they seem to be "the preferred type of bee for beekeeping in Central America and in tropical areas of South America because of improved productivity." Improved productivity or not, they've just been added to a list of public nuisances in Arizona, which means the government can "order a property owner to have a bee swarm removed at the owner's cost."

I'd also like to look into the Varroa mite, because that appears to be the primary culprit. Otherwise, why the fuss over mite resistent queens?

A significant mite infestation leads to the death of a honey bee colony and is a major contributor to what the bee industry has dubbed "colony collapse disorder."

The serious affliction has led to an increase in the loss of honey bees, escalating in early 2006 to the present. Other contributing factors of the sudden decline are suggested to be from unknown pathogens, other mites and pesticides.

Importation of honey bees from out of state and Australia has helped prevent a collapse in the industry, but growing demand for pollinators in the almond industry means a serious solution must be found.

Scott Jefferies, professor and beekeeper at Cal Poly, is working on a project to genetically select mite-resistant queens to repopulate the industry.

"In the last year we have identified queens that express a resistance to the mites," Jefferies says. "We plan to breed these queens to create new colonies that will not be as susceptible to the colony collapse disorder."

That is good news for local beekeepers.

Still, the war against Africanized bees is being taken very seriously by beekeepers. So seriously, in fact, that setting up European honeybee hives is urged upon farmers as a defensive measure:
One good reason to consider renting to a beekeeper is that a beehive may prevent Africanized bees from moving onto your property.

In the last two or three years, higher concentrations of Africanized honey bees have migrated to the Central Coast.

"The best way to prevent Africanized bees from moving in is to have a high concentration of European honey bees on your property," Jefferies said.

Both wild and commercialized honey bees aid in reducing the available food supply, making the land less attractive to the unwanted guests.

Another benefit of having a commercial beekeeper on your property is that the keeper will capture and eradicate Africanized colonies so they don't harm the commercial colonies.

Jim Reider, owner of Buzzy Bee, eradicated three separate Africanized swarms last year alone. He attributes the higher concentrations of Africanized colonies to the loss of feral European bee colonies.

"A beehive on your property may turn out to be a sweet partnership between you and the beekeeper," Reider said.

It sounds like fierce competition, and while I'd hate to see the mean and nasty bees win, reading about it makes me skeptical about the environmentalists' claim that European honeybees are "the canary in the coal mine." What about the Africanized bees? (Is there a mine shaft gap? Or are the environmentalists tagging along with the bee industry this time?)

UPDATE: Is the whole "killer bee" meme a fraud? In 1993, some Arizona beekeepers were saying that the Africanized bees are nowhere near as dangerous as they've been made out to be, and they've been here for many years:

"Killer bees" are nothing more than a hyped-up scam foisted on the public to milk federal research dollars, a group of southern Arizona beekeepers charges.

The group insists the Africanized honeybee has been in this country for years and is really no different from the bees we already have.

Its members dispute the accepted scientific view that a different, more aggressive bee has been moving slowly north from South America for the past 35 years, and is now entering the United States.

They call the whole "killer bee" phenomenon "imaginary," "baloney," and "an international fraud."

Their controversial point of view is strongly disputed by beekeepers in Texas who are now living with the Africanized bee, as well as bee scientists and researchers who have tracked this bee for decades.

Nevertheless, their beliefs about a "killer bee fraud" will have an impact in southern Arizona.

These beekeepers say they will not make any effort to keep the Africanized honeybees out of their domestic hives after they arrive here later this year. They will instead allow them to interbreed freely with their domestic European bees.

The beekeepers charged that the war against killer bees was part of a federal pork barrel deal:
As for the 130 documented killer bee attacks on humans so far in Texas - this is "just normal" for honeybees, Lusby said. She said no formal bee sting records were kept before killer bees arrived there 2-1/2 years ago, so no one can say that is a higher attack record than before.

Why would bee scientists, bee experts and the government pull such a scam on the public?

"You've got the biggest pork barrel deal you ever saw in this bee," Lusby answered.

In short, she and others believe bee scientists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have exaggerated the killer bee threat to keep federal bee research dollars flowing.

"People are lying about this whole thing for the money. You can't get big money unless you've got a big problem. Well, they now have a 'big problem,' and they also have a new bee research lab in Texas.

"I'm willing to make a case for international fraud here if I have to," she declared.

Lusby said she represents the views of most of the southern Arizona beekeepers' group - about 90 to 100 beekeepers in this area.

Backing her up, Arivaca beekeeper Edwin Stockwell said history has shown the killer bee is "no real problem in other areas (South and Central America and Mexico), and it won't be here either."

He said he is actually looking forward to having more Africanized genes in his domestic bee colonies.

"I think it will be a beneficial impact, rather than otherwise. They will bring new vigor to the gene pool. Only about 10 percent of these (Africanized) bees may be more aggressive than you like. It's a bit more of a high-speed bee.

OK, that was in 1993. What's happened since? They've spread, and according to the USDA, despite the hype, the Africanized Honeybees (AHBs) are interbreeding with the EHBs with no major incidents:
....14 years later, scientists with the Agricultural Research Service and elsewhere have uncovered many answers, but they have also come upon some new and unexpected questions.

Africanized honey bees--melodramatically labeled "killer bees" by Hollywood hype--are the result of honey bees brought from Africa to Brazil in the 1950s in hopes of breeding a bee better adapted to the South American tropical climate. These honey bees reached the Brazilian wild in 1957 and then spread south and north until they officially reached the United States on October 19, 1990.

Actually, all honey bees are imports to the New World. Those that flourished here before the arrival of Africanized honey bees (AHBs) are considered European honey bees (EHBs), because they were introduced by European colonists in the 1600s and 1700s. EHBs that escaped from domestication are considered feral rather than wild.

They're more successful because they're hardier and more disease resistant than the EHBs that are trucked around and protected by beekeepers. Moreover, the EHB queens would rather mate with Africanized drones than EHB drones (as if anyone but John Lennon would be surprised that nature favors the stronger):
EHB queen bees mate disproportionately with African drones, resulting in rapid displacement of EHB genes in a colony. This happens because AHBs produce more drones per colony than EHBs, especially when queens are most likely to be mating, DeGrandi-Hoffman explains.

"We also found that even when you inseminate a queen with a 50-50 mix of African drone semen and EHB semen, the queens preferentially use the African semen first to produce the next generation of workers and drones, sometimes at a ratio as high as 90 to 10," she says. "We don't know why this happens, but it's probably one of the strongest factors in AHBs replacing EHBs."

When an Africanized colony replaces its queen, she can have either African or European paternity. Virgin queens fathered by African drones emerge as much as a day earlier than European-patriline queens. This enables them to destroy rival queens that are still developing. African virgin queens are more successful fighters, too, which gives them a significant advantage if they encounter other virgin queens in the colony. DeGrandi-Hoffman and Schneider also found that workers perform more bouts of vibration-generating body movements on African queens before they emerge and during fighting, which may give the queens some sort of survival advantage.

AHB swarms also practice "nest usurpation," meaning they invade EHB colonies and replace resident queens with the swarm's African queen. Nest usurpation causes loss of European matrilines as well as patrilines. "In Arizona, we've seen usurpation rates as high as 20 to 30 percent," says DeGrandi-Hoffman.

Ms. DeGrandi-Hoffman points out that the threat is overrated:
....they're not anywhere near the type of threat that Hollywood has made them out to be," DeGrandi-Hoffman points out.
Why would Hollywood do such a thing? And if they're disease resistant, and more honey productive, why are laws being passed against them?

Again, I'm no expert, but I'm wondering whether a little skepticism might be in order.

(After all, I've been living with "killer pit bulls" for over 30 years, and I'm still alive.)

Again, why is AHB immunity being downplayed by the media? You'd think the scientists would jump at the opportunity to solve the awful problem that "Einstein" warned would doom mankind.

UPDATE: I know it's unrelated, but reading about the Jessica Lynch/PatTillman fraud, it occurs to me that if government officials would go to such lengths to lie about people, why, lying about bees would almost be a no-brainer.

And yes, heads should and won't roll regarding the former.

And no, that does not mean there's any connection or moral equivalency between the former and the latter. Lying in one instance does not indicate lying in the other. I'm just reflecting on why I blog, and why I'm not terribly shocked.

(Knowing I can't fix any of this is as good a reason as any to go to bed.)

UPDATE (04/25/07): Gentle Africanized honey bees with good Varroa mite hygiene? Can such things be?

And for those who are interested, and really want to explore bee parasites in depth, by all means watch "Life Cycle of the Honey Bee and Varroa Mite" -- brought to you in living Google video color!

UPDATE: Many thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and welcome all!

While I've been unable to determine how James Dobson feels about unnatural pollination, I don't think he'd like looking at these pornographic pictures of bees at all. Nor do I think he would want children reading the caption:

The drone mounts the queen, inserts his endophallus, and ejaculates his semen.


During ejaculation, the male falls back and his endophallus is ripped out of his body and remains attached to the queen.

That's some tough love. (But who ever said the birds and the bees were nice?)

UPDATE (04/26/07): Where have all the pollinators gone? Readers might enjoy my response to a recent editorial claim that they've disappeared entirely, and that it's "scary."

posted by Eric on 04.24.07 at 04:52 PM


Great post Eric! Until I read this I hadn't even considered that reporting on the subject might be the usual agenda driven and/or lazy/sloppy msm hack job.

Harkonnendog   ·  April 24, 2007 5:17 PM

Thanks Hark, I'm glad you liked it! (I'm not saying that the bee disease isn't a serious problem, mind you. Just skeptical about catastrophic hype.)

Eric Scheie   ·  April 24, 2007 7:26 PM

This whole bee thing would be solved if the commercial beekeepers would allow nature to take its course and genetic drift to work its magic. Since said beekeepers make their money from the honey their bees create, and European honey bees make honey like rabbits make rabbits, their motives aren't exactly difficult to discern.

Trying to impose external order on a naturally chaotic process is a lose-lose.

Captain Ned   ·  April 24, 2007 8:34 PM

There aren't many vegetable crops that require insect pollination. Some squashes, cucumbers and melons spring to mind.
Others are self pollinating (Peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers), wind pollinated (corn), or require no pollination (potatoes and other root crops).
I think there is a sizable dose of sensationalising going on.

Heffalump   ·  April 24, 2007 10:14 PM

There's no over-stating the importance of apiculture in the pollination of domestic crops. Cotton, used for textiles and livestock feed, needs insect pollination, and bees are the most efficient at it. Most citrus crops, ditto. Alfalfa, almonds, apples, pears, and many others.

No doubt there is a certain amount of rent-seeking being done by researchers and those who benefit from the mild hysteria that results from ignorant people being misled, but bees are extremely important to agriculture.

Great post, Eric. The eclectic tastes of you and Simon keep this place interesting.

skh.pcola   ·  April 25, 2007 11:08 AM

To me it is kind of spooky right now to walk by all the blooming Cherry, Plum, and Dogwood tress with seeing a single Honeybee. Thirty years ago I would see them everywhere there were flowers.

I do see bumblebees and the f@$%ing carpenter bees on the flowering trees when they aren't busy digging in my woodwork.

Bram   ·  April 25, 2007 1:13 PM

There is an Organic Beekeeping group on Yahoo that is run by a couple from Arizona who've been doing a lot of work on the mite issue. (Sorry, I've forgotten their names.) They believe that the issue is a problem due to 1)beekeepers trying to get rid of drones which are the natural hosts for mites and 2)bees have been bred to be too big. They find that smaller bees are more resistant. Those interested in finding out more might take a look at the Yahoo group.

Teri Pittman   ·  April 25, 2007 4:24 PM

All I can tell you is I live in southern AZ, and the mesquite tree outside is covered in blooms. Last year the bees were so busy at it that the buzzing made me look for a swarm. Right now I can't see a single bee on it. It's rather eerie.

I kept bees back in the 60s, before the mite, when foulbrood (a disease) was the worry. If I recall the main US commercial bees were the Golden Italian and the Caucasian (originally from the Caucaus Mtn area). The native, and wild, bees were Black Bees. (I think the native european bee is the brown bee).

I suspect there are no commercial hives within many miles, and that the normal visitors are wild. I'm on the edge of the desert, but not near an agricultural area, so it likely is nothing associated with agriculture.

David Hardy   ·  April 25, 2007 6:41 PM

While it seems clear there's some overhype going on, it isn't necessarily contradictory to say 90% of pollination is done by pollen bees, and that "honeybees, [are] the primary species that fertilizes food-producing plants," if that one species of honey bee pollinates more than any other species.

owlish   ·  April 25, 2007 7:19 PM

$20 says the so-called pet food scare is overblown too.

Eric   ·  April 25, 2007 7:28 PM

I dug some into this too, Eric, suspecting as you did that CCD might be overhyped, and found also that it's not exactly new.

Scroll down in this presentation for example and you'll find that the phonemoneon, which used to be called Fall Dwindling Disease, was reported as early as 1930. No mention on whether cell phone signals can travel back in time.

There's a wealth of info on that site (Penn State Dept of entomology).

It looks like their researchers are leaning toward a theory that bees are being weakened by a variety of stressors which makes them vulnerable to pathogens.

Last fall I posted about an Orion article about a beekeeper by name of Kirk Webster who used breeding to solve his varroa mite problem. The link is broken now, but I'd put my money on that being an early clue to the new CCD direction -- breed stronger bees.

Kirsten   ·  April 25, 2007 7:59 PM

Found the Orion article.

He gets a 70 percent survival rate on his hives without using any pesticides to control mites.

Kirsten   ·  April 25, 2007 8:10 PM

I have oft commented this spring that I fretted over my peach trees. During bloom I saw not one honeybee. Amazingly, the trees are full of immature peaches. How did that happen without the HBs? Flies, moths, and other insects is my guess. Plus the usual smattering of other unidentified bees of some type.

Also, along with the HB decline, I notice the butterflies are vanishing too. Must be all those vehicles on the interstate sweeping the air free of insects. I know my windshield has done it's part!

JoeC   ·  April 25, 2007 9:14 PM

JoeC, did you catch the link about carpenter bees that Instapundit put up shortly after the cell phone/honeybee non-story broke?

Apparently they are excellent pollinators and can be attracted to orchards by putting up boards for them to nest in.

Kirsten   ·  April 25, 2007 9:25 PM

"I really don't want to just start assuming that nearly everything I read is some sort of lying spin cranked out for the benefit of one special interest or another."

You should. It is always the safer assumption.

Fat Man   ·  April 25, 2007 11:55 PM

Hey, Eric! Great post on bees! Gosh, that was a LOT of work!

I have a big and ever-increasing-in-size garden -- lots of pollinators, including bees, which I've become very friendly with.

About two years ago I realized bees had moved into a big cedar tree just a little too close to my house. I called beekeepers in the area (I live in Texas, Africanized bees are in the next county over and probably in ours, as well) to come remove/relocate them. I called several -- none would do it, they figured they were Africanized and didn't want to have anything to do with them. I finally called an exterminator, reluctantly. (They're a mess if they get in your house, plus my grandkids). So the info you've compiled here is fascinating! Thanks!


Dede   ·  April 26, 2007 12:59 PM

The honeybees are dying
Ohio beekeepers are reporting a 72 percent loss of colonies over the winter
Thursday, April 26, 2007 3:41 AM
By Spencer Hunt
Between September and March, 72 percent of Ohio's beehives have died. Is it an agricultural calamity waiting to happen or just a cyclical blip?

Fat Man   ·  April 26, 2007 10:00 PM

It is early in the Spring but many plants are in bloom here in the higher Sonoran near Prescott AZ. I am noticing that there is a conspicuous lack of bees that are usually heavy in native plants and in my small garden which is planted with mainly native perennials and shrubs.

Virginia   ·  May 15, 2007 12:19 PM

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