BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: From the web team
« Previous | Main | Next »

Extract from A World Without Bees

Brian Thornton | 18:19 UK time, Thursday, 21 August 2008

On Newsnight Stephen Smith investigated the mysterious disappearance of bees in the UK. It's a subject which is causing a great deal of concern - Here is an extract from the recently published A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum:

Why a book about a world without bees?

For as far as the eye can see everything is pale pink. The valley that stretches across central California for the best part of 500 miles is blanketed with salmon-coloured orchards.

Welcome to almond country. The trees -- all 60-odd million of them -- are heavy with blossom. Other than a constant stream of cars and trucks along Route 5 and ubiquitous fast food joints hugging the highway, there is little else to see in this flat, monotonous landscape, other than row upon row upon row of the blossom-bearing trees.

When we told people we were coming here for research, the usual response was "Wow, that's going to be beautiful". They were right about the "wow" factor, almond-growing on this scale is mind-boggling. But where is the beauty in such a regimented landscape?

The trees are planted in symmetrical rows, at regular intervals, so many inches apart. Early-blooming and late-blooming varieties are laid out in separate blocks, in uniform, repetitive patterns. Coupled with improvements in irrigation, better pest and disease control, and the development of high-yield crops, this standardised, large-scale method of producing a single crop, known as monoculture, has become the hallmark of modern, efficient agriculture.

Adopted across the globe, it has led to substantial increases in the world's food supply. Yet few crops can match the inexorable rise of the Californian almond, which is now the United States' most valuable horticultural export. Last year, more than $1.9bn worth of Californian almonds were sent to the global marketplace, more than double the revenue from its Napa Valley wine exports. In fact, 80% of the world's almonds now come from the sunshine state.

This was not the case just 30 years ago when an acre of almond orchard produced around 500 pounds in weight of nuts. Today, average yields six times that -- 3,000 pounds of nuts per acre -- are not unusual. But it is not just better management or new varieties that explain these record-breaking harvests.

If you look closely at the blossom-laden branches you will see the reason for the explosion of fruit. And if you listen you will hear the unmistakeable buzz that accompanies the diligent work involved. For each flower has on it a honeybee. She is drinking its sweet nectar. As she crawls around to find the perfect sucking position, her furry body is dusted with beads of pollen that are transferred from blossom to blossom as she flies from one to another, pollinating the plant in her search for more nectar. The plant's ovaries swell into fruit, which by late August are ripe, oval-shaped nuts.

The Apis mellifera, or western honeybee, as it's more commonly known, has been revered for thousands of years for its ability to make a deliciously sweet substance that has delighted the human palate since prehistoric times. The earliest record of humans' use ofhoney is a cave painting in Valencia, Spain, that depicts a man climbing a cliff to rob a swarm of wild bees. It is dated to 15,000 years ago, just after the ice age, and the love affair has continued ever since. The Greeks and Romans called honey the food of the gods, and Egyptian pharaohs had it buried in their funeral vaults. Cleopatra ensured its rejuvenating powers became legendary with her baths of asses' milk and honey, and its medicinal qualities, which were used to heal wounds before the event of modern medicine, are still prized today for soothing coughs.

But the honeybee has an even more important role -- as nature's master pollinator. All flowering plants need animals to pollinate them and the honeybee is perfectly engineered to perform the task, with a body designed to trap pollen and a methodical work ethic that leaves no petal unturned. Without the honeybee all the vitality and colour of the planet would be lost. A point that is well illustrated in Jerry Seinfeld's animated film, Bee Movie, in which Central Park is reduced to a grey, barren wilderness when the bees go on strike.

And it's not just pretty blossoms we need to thank honeybees for. Approximately one third of all the food we eat is pollinated by them.
Nuts, soybeans, onions, carrots, broccoli and sunflowers all require honeybee pollination, as do numerous fruits including apples, oranges, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, melons, avocados and peaches. Alfalfa, the clover-like plant widely grown as cattle feed is also dependent on the honeybee, as is cotton. In all, some 90 different crops worldwide are pollinated by honeybees. Globally, that makes honeybee pollination worth more than $60bn a year, of which some $15bn is in the US alone, according to a Cornell University study.

Pollination is big business and nowhere more so than across the 600,000 acres of Californian almond trees. Each February, they play host to around 1.2 million honeybee colonies. Each acre houses two hives, which is around 80,000 bees per acre, or more than 40 billion bees in total, making it the largest pollination in history.

We'd been told it was a truly amazing spectacle. But unlike the sight of tens of thousands of migratory birds flying south for the winter, the arrival of billions of honeybees to the warm climes of California's Central Valley is not a natural phenomenon. They are guided neither by the position of the sun, nor by the Earth's magnetic fields. Instead they are driven thousands of miles on the backs of huge trucks from the far corners of the United States, their hives stacked five-high.

Half of all the 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the US make this annual cross-country trek from as far afield as Massachusetts in the east and Florida in the south. They are now joined in the Central Valley orchards by honeybees flown in from Australia to boost the numbers taking part in this mammoth event.

And it doesn't end there. California is just the first port of call on most of these bees' five-month criss-cross tour of North America to more than 3.5 million acres of orchards and fields. After three weeks spent feeding on almond nectar, many will be back on the trucks heading south to the citrus plantations of Florida, then north for apples and cherries, and as far east as Maine for the blueberries.

This intensive, migratory beekeeping is a far cry from the hobby we pursue in our small back garden in south London. The only move for our bees was from the apiary where we collected them to the spot by the wall where their hive has sat for a couple of years. From this sheltered location, they happily forage from spring right through to the end of autumn for nectar and pollen among the parks, gardens, railway sidings and tree-lined roads that dot the Battersea landscape. In the process they make enough honey to keep us and them well fed throughout the year.

There is something magical about watching your bees return home after a hard day's foraging on a balmy summer evening. For many urban apiarists who work all day in an office, they are an antidote to the stresses of city life. Creating a rural idyll in a corner of a housing estate was our small way of trying to reconnect with nature. It fulfilled something we knew was missing from our lives, a feeling we couldn't quite put our finger on, but is now being termed "nature-deficit disorder".

We had also heard about the vital role honeybees play by pollinating food and flowers but that they were under threat because of the same combination of factors that afflicts much of our wildlife in Britain -- urban development, loss of biodiversity and destruction of their habitat. So giving bees a home in the city felt as if we were doing our bit for the environment.

There is nothing vaguely eco-friendly, however, about trucking millions of bees thousands of miles across the States. The contrast between our "back to nature" vision of keeping bees and the harsh reality of commercial beekeeping is unfathomable.

What is happening in California is nothing short of the industrialisation of pollination. And like any industry it is driven by profit. In a good year commercial apiarists can clear $100,000 and the farmers' income rises as yields increase.

Joe Traynor is a bee broker. For six weeks every year, his company Scientific Ag match-makes migratory apiarists with Californian almond farmers in need of bees. It is testimony to the scale of the almond industry that it has spawned a new career for Traynor and other former beekeepers.

But now it, and other crop pollination, is threaten by a mysterious illness that has led to the disappearance of millions of honeybees around the world and is fuelling fears of an environmental crisis bigger than climate change.

Albert Einstein is thought to have said: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

In truth, it is more likely to have been French beekeepers who put these words posthumously into Einstein's mouth a few years ago during a fierce battle to get a pesticide (more of which later) banned from their country.

Whoever said it, the apocalyptic sentiment chimes with the view that bees are the "canary in the coalmine", a barometer for the health of the planet, and that their predicament is a warning to us all.

In the past two years, around a third of all honeybees in the States have mysteriously vanished -- around 800,000 hives. Some commercial beekeepers have reported losses of up to 90% since the end of 2006. The disappearance, which has baffled researchers and academics, is not limited to the States. Large numbers of colonies have also been wiped out in parts of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America. In Croatia, it was reported that five million bees disappeared in less than 48 hours.

Bees have a sophisticated navigation system that uses the sun and landmarks as points of reference. It allows them to travel up to three miles from the hive in search of food without losing their way back home. They are able to direct other bees in their hive to the food source through a remarkable form of communication called the "waggle dance".

But in a hive suffering from this strange plague, the adult bees do not return home, leaving their queen, eggs and larvae to starve to death. Moreover, young nurse bees, whose job it is to stay in the hive and care for the new brood while the adults are out searching for food, desert their post and fly away. Such a dereliction of duty is unheard of unless the bee is diseased and leaves the hive to prevent it from infecting others.

When news of the vanishing bees, a phenomenon soon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), started to filter through in newspaper reports at the beginning of 2007, some of the more fanciful theories for their disappearance ranged from cell phones messing up their navigation system to an elaborate al-Qaida plot to wreck US agriculture.

Although no one knew for sure what was causing the bees to perish, it spurred the launch of a global investigation. More credible suspects included exposure to genetically modified crops, pesticide poisoning, invasive parasites, malnutrition from pollinating vast tracts of crops with little nourishment, and the stress of being moved long distances.

Entomologists were convinced that the culprit was either a new virus, a virus that had mutated into a more virulent strain, or a virus that had combined forces with another pathogen, such as a fungus, to create an AIDS-like virus that destroyed the bees' immune system.

To date, a CCD working group in the States, made up of scientists from six universities and led by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), has focused its efforts on trying to identify a virus or fungus.

A team led by Pennsylvania State University, the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture and Columbia University made a breakthrough in September 2007 when they linked CCD with a virus that was identified in 96% of the hives affected by the disorder. But Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), which was first discovered in Israel in 2004, may prove to be a symptom rather than the cause. By recreating CCD in healthy hives, scientists hope to be able to determine what's triggering it.

With billions of dollars at stake, and the further expansion of the Californian almond crop in peril, the US government has approved increased funding totalling around $85m for bee research. But apiarists increasingly believe that the scientists, supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense, are backing the wrong horse.

Dave Hackenberg, the Pennsylvania beekeeper who first discovered CCD in his Florida hives in November 2006, puts pesticides in the dock. He argues that bees have had viruses for years but a new type of nicotine-based pesticide is breaking down their immune system and causing CCD.

Imidacloprid is his prime suspect. Not licensed in the US until 1994, it is now found almost everywhere from front lawns to apple orchards and sunflower fields. Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer, denies that its product is responsible for CCD and cites studies that support its conclusion. But other studies in France and Italy found that the chemical disorientates bees, impairs their memory and communication and causes nervous system disorders. The French government was so concerned that it backed protests by French beekeepers and partially banned imidaclopridin 1999, pending further studies. Brazil has also pulled it from its shelves.

Many experienced beekeepers support Hackenberg's thesis, but scientists remain unconvinced. If pesticides are the culprit, they ask, why have bees disappeared from areas where no pesticides are used?

Instead, they point the finger at beekeepers for overworking and under nourishing their bees. Hackenberg's 2,200 hives were logging 5,500 miles a year on the road before he lost two thirds of them to CCD. In his defence, he says it hasn't troubled the bees before in all the 30 years that he's been doing it.

Bees have been disappearing long before pesticides or the stresses of modern life were invented. The first recorded unexplained loss was in the United States in 1869, and thereafter large numbers mysteriously vanished in the US and Australia at intervals throughout the 19th century. Between 1905 and 1919, an epidemic wiped out 90% of the honeybee colonies on the Isle of Wight in the UK. Throughout the 20th century, large-scale losses were reported throughout the States, and in neighbouring Canada and Mexico. Then as now, the main suspects were colony mismanagement, deficiencies in bees' diet and chemicals in the environment, but the mystery was never solved.

Today's scientists are confident that, armed with many new tools of detection, such as a complete mapping of the honeybee genome and modern molecular techniques, they will be able to nail the culprit behind this latest outbreak. But more than a year after they began their investigations, they are still following leads and are unable to point to one single cause.

Meanwhile, US beekeepers are reporting a second year of CCD. Hackenberg, who restocked after losing two thirds of his bees in the winter of 2006/07, was dismayed to find that 80% of his colonies had vanished again when he opened his hives in Florida in November2007.

If bees continue disappearing at this rate, it is estimated that by 2035 there will no honeybees left in the US. In the UK, an 11% decline in honeybees is not officially attributed to CCD, but that hasn't stopped the farming minister, Lord Rooker, from warning that its 260,000 colonies could disappear from its shores in 10 years' time.

There is a province of China where life already exists without bees -- the uncontrolled use of pesticides in southern Sichuan is reported to have killed them off in the 1980s. As a result, the area's pear trees have to be pollinated by hand; a slow, labour-intensive process that comes nowhere near to matching the bees' productivity in pollinating three million flowers a day. If such a process was tried in the US, it would cost an estimated $90bn a year.

In addition to fewer, and more expensive, fruit and vegetables in the shops, no honeybees means no honey. Although migratory beekeepers have raised the alarm about bee disappearances, there are already reports of honey production being affected by large-scale bee loses in Argentina, one of the world's largest exporters of honey.

Undeterred, scientists are now exploring a hi-tech solution to the vanishing Apis mellifera. They want to engineer a new, virus-resistant super bee that would combine the hardiness of the aggressive Africanised bee with the docile nature of the western honeybee. While not beyond the realms of possibility, a such a bee is not a panacea. If we put our faith in a hi-tech fix, we are ignoring the bees' environmental wake-up call.

We wanted to write a book that alerted people to the wonders of the honeybee and unravelled the mystery of its disappearance. In all the excitement generated in the press about vanishing bees, had some basic questions been overlooked, and were scientists, in their desperate search for a virus to pin the disorder on, looking in the wrong? Why, for example, was a pesticide proven to be highly toxic to adult bees still widely used in most countries?

We chose California as a focal point because the almond orchards are a major crime scene -- most of the bees that disappear in the States have been here and mixed with other bees who suffered a similar fate. What happens in this corner of North America could hold clues to the worldwide wipe-out of bees. And with the number of bee experts likely to descend on this year's behemoth pollination operation, it was also the place to cross-examine key witnesses.

California also provides a horrifying glimpse into what the future could hold for honeybees -- if there are any left. Demand for honeybees here is projected to grow to 2.1 million colonies by 2012, nearly equal to all the colonies in the US.

So, to understand what is happening to the western honeybee, how we can urgently stop its demise, and what lessons this has for the future stewardship of the planet, our journey had to start in the Central Valley.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]ELECTRIC UNIVERSE As the Greeks used to say: 'all is flux' they could have said 'electro-magnetic flux'. Earth being part of the cosmic-galactic-solar system electric circuitry, is showing signs of increasing change. This report [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] addresses the bee question. But don't forget global warming, nuctolucence, magnetic pole displacement and even 'the hum', not to mention 2012 (no - not the bloody Olympics).

  • Comment number 3.


    As the Greeks used to say: 'all is flux' they could have said 'electro-magnetic flux'.
    Earth being part of the cosmic-galactic-solar system electric circuitry, is showing signs of increasing change. You can find a comprehensive report on magnetism and bees on the web. But don't forget global warming, nuctolucence, magnetic pole displacement and even 'the hum', not to mention 2012 (no - not the darned Olympics).

  • Comment number 4.

    Perhaps the Bee's have simply left for better working conditions, sweeter nectar and less travel??

  • Comment number 5.

    I am concerned that the decline of Bees which seems to be World wide, could be caused by the vast amount of electomagnetic energy ( Radio waves ) that mankind has increasingly been propogating in recent years. Particularly in the microwave end of the spectrum, used by cell phones and Radar. We are constantly beeing assured that the power levels of mobile phone sites are within safety limits but what about the cumulative effect of all this energy and the military Radars being used at higher power levels.
    It is almost impossible to measure this energy but we and all living things on the planet are exposed to it. It might even be adding to the warming of the atmosphere, or damaging the bees internal organs.

  • Comment number 6.

    It is very concerning. There are similar problems with earthworms, Lumbricus terrestris.

    The ecosystem is like a web, a net connecting all living things. The Force in Star Wars for the geeks.

    We are a baby that lies in the net of the ecosystem. The net is stretched out high above a mountain valley. The baby is placed on the net.

    A game of Battleships is played. A strand of the net is cut each time, representing a species extinction and loss of connection in the ecological net.

    How long before the baby crashes on to the rocks of the valley floor?

    Celtic Lion


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.