Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's a stinger when bees disappear

Sep 9, 2010

By Andy Ho

IN THE biggest food smuggling case in United States history, 11 executives were recently indicted for illegal imports of honey from China.

They had evaded US$80 million (S$108 million) in duties. Although honey is only a minor commodity in the US, prices have been subsidised since 1952. Price supports were eliminated in 1996, but they were quickly reinstated in 2002.

But bee-keeping is a widely dispersed industry that has never had a strong lobby in Washington. Why then has it continued to attract subsidies?

During World War II, honey was promoted as a sugar substitute while beeswax was used to waterproof military equipment. Post-war, however, sugar became available in abundance, so demand for honey dropped and its prices fell steeply between 1947 and 1949.

During the war, farmers were urged to plant tomatoes, sugar beets, corn and cotton, crops that incidentally also deplete soil nitrogen. Thus, post-war, farmers were urged to plant legumes like clover and alfalfa to replenish soil nitrogen.

But legume seeds were scarce because of high demand in Europe. Moreover, legumes need honeybees to pollinate them, but the US bee population had fallen after new herbicides decimated their natural habitats in the post-war period.

Initially, the significance of that decline was not understood. Then research in California from the late 1940s showed that honeybees increased the production of alfalfa. When five hives were used instead of one for each acre of alfalfa, production surged fivefold.

In 1949, congressional hearings noted the importance of having enough bees to pollinate plants to maintain US crop output. Eventually, it was decided that honey prices should be supported.
These subsidies lasted for more than 40 years until they came under political scrutiny in the 1990s. At the time, industry fell back on the same argument: Should bee-keepers fail because of low honey prices, bee pollination services would be insufficient to keep up food production and high food prices would inevitably follow.

But the political climate was unfavourable to bee-keepers. In June 1994, the General Accounting Office concluded that 'price support for honey is not needed for ensuring a supply of honeybees for pollination'.

By 2002, however, for reasons unrelated to honey per se, the political climate had turned around. Honey subsidies were quickly reinstated.

Be that as it may, bee pollination could, in fact, make the difference between plenty and famine. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), insect-pollinated plants account for one-third of what we eat, directly or indirectly, with bees accounting for 80 per cent of all that insect pollination.

The US National Wildlife Federation estimates that bees pollinate up to US$10 billion worth of crops a year. Crops ranging from apples and blue-berries to vegetables and forage plants like clover and alfalfa that dairy cows eat require insect pollination. So a decline in the bee population may affect beef and dairy products as well.

But since 2006, US and Europe bee populations have been afflicted with a mysterious phenomenon involving worker bees abruptly disappearing from their hives to die elsewhere.

Entire colonies are abandoned for no obvious reason. The USDA reported a 29 per cent drop in beehives last year after a 36 per cent drop in 2008 and a 32 per cent decline in 2007.

Dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), this phenomenon may presage crop failures on a huge scale, as the hive shortage in California threatening its almond crop this year suggests.

The Golden State supplies 80 per cent of the world's almonds. Pollinating almond plants involves a million hives being trucked into California from all 49 other states every February. This year, pollination brokers, in what is the world's largest managed pollination event, reported a dearth of honeybees. As a result, the state's almond harvest which began last month is forecast to suffer a 17 per cent drop for 2009 to 2010, which means a global shortfall of 13 per cent.

What is causing the bees to disappear remains unestablished, according to the latest USDA report. However, a Public Library of Science study out last March reported that 60 per cent of pollen and wax samples from beehives sampled in 23 US states were found to have at least one pesticide, of which 121 types were identified.

Some pesticides are known to disrupt bee dance language or worker bee orientation. Others shorten worker bee lives.

In 2008, the use of maize seeds that had been soaked in two insecticides, neonicotinoid and fipronil, was banned in northern Italy where a million hectares of the crop exist. At harvest time last year, bee colonies in the apiaries around the corn crop remained healthy, with only one case of CCD where old seed had probably been used. Last year was also a good year for acacia honey in Italy.

While this will be one promising line of inquiry that scientists will pursue, much more needs to be done to understand the honey bee crisis if it is to be mitigated. Strange as it might seem, helping to save the little critters could well help avert human famine as well.

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