As bees disappear at an alarming rate, scientists are scrambling to understand why. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a $4 million dollar grant to scientists at universities across the country to do just that. The leader of that team, entomologist Keith Delaplane at the University of Georgia, spoke with Newsweek's Kate Dailey about what might be causing the bee collapse, how it can be stopped and the potential impact on the Western diet. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Where are the bees going?
Keith Delaplane: We've been tracking a decline in the number of beehives since 1940s. What has caught everyone's attention is a spike in that trend beginning in 2006. You'll have a hive full of bees but its population just, without explanation, dwindles away. There are increased rates of colony mortality, there are increased rates of queen death, and when your queen dies the whole colony falls down pretty fast. The whole effect has been a decline in the number of beehives. They're just more difficult to keep alive.
How do you determine the cause of death?
We can take a look at dead bees and we can eliminate some things. We can find some parasites and other diseases on them, so we're not totally in the dark.
Is there a singular cause felling the bees, or is it a perfect storm of factors?
There are a lot of factors conspiring against honeybees. They include exotic parasites and pathogens, pesticide use in the environment, declining forage crops [such as alfalfa and clover]-all of these things play into it.
You've just received a grant to try and figure this out. What's the first step?
When you think about it, it's a formidable job. You have to take a big long list of suspected agents and you have to tease them out and test them individually, and then you have to test them in combination. There are viruses, and there's a single celled organism called microsporidium. We think that they are possibly interacting, so if you have a colony with both of them, it's kind of a double whammy. We also have parasitic mites that have been introduced in this country. So the question now is which of these suspected culprits, and what combination of these suspected culprits, is the chief cause?
Where are these viruses coming from?
Honeybees have had these viruses from posterity, as far as we know. What does seem to be new is a particular parasitic mite, the varroa mite. It's like a bee tick: it gets on their body and sucks their blood. It is a native parasite of another species of honeybee from Asia, and in the 1980s it was introduced into North America. And ever since then we have seen a surge in the virulence of all the ordinary viruses. Does the varroa mite vector [carry] them? Does it activate them? Does it aggravate them? We don't really know the answer to that. But it does seem that varroa has made these old viruses more virulent.
But aren't bees in Asia also having problem?
Yes, but with the same species. There's a western species and an eastern species of honeybees. What we have in North America is the western species, imported from Europe. The western species is very, very productive, so it's been exported even into the native range of the eastern species. So you've got all of this global mixing going on.
Are we doomed?
The short answer is no. Human beings don't need honeybee pollination. Most of the plants that provide calories for the human population tend to be wind pollinated cereals, like wheat and corn and rice. But once you have an economy improving and the standard of living improving and the diet improving, you start seeing the introduction of meat and dairy products, and both of those require forage crops that are honeybee pollinated. When an economy starts improving, you start seeing melons, fruits, berries--all of these are bee pollinated. The point is, human survival does not depend upon honeybee pollination, but quality of life in a developed economy does.
So you can live without honeybee pollination, you just don't want to.
Compare the diets in a country like Canada, the United States, and Great Britain with diets in a country like Nigeria, Sudan, or Malaysia. You don't have the preponderance of meat and dairy and fruit and vegetables in developing countries like you do here. That difference is defined by bee pollination.
Is the economy defined by bee pollination, or is bee pollination defined by the economy?
That's really a chicken and egg question. What happens is when economies improve and diets improve and people want to eat better, that translates into bee pollinated crops. The way I see it, if we are interested in improving the quality of human life on planet Earth, then bee pollination must be a part of that formula. It goes hand in hand with economic development and nutrition enhancement. It is an integral part of the formula.