The Food on Our Plates


By Zoe Kamen

As we heap food on our plates in this modern age, we may pause to consider a myriad of questions. Is it good for us? Where did it come from and how was it produced? Rarely do we think about the small insect that enabled it to grow and be fruitful in the first place.

One in every three mouthfuls of our food owes its existence to an insect pollinator. A study by Cornell University placed the value of honeybee pollination services at $14.6 billion a year in the United States alone.Worldwide, the United Nations values bees’ contribution at $200 billion annually.

For millennia, people have reaped benefits from the bee; we utilize every component of the hive. But the rewards of bees extend far beyond their colonies. When the Pilgrims reached the New World with their alien crops, the bees they brought with them ensured they were pollinated.

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Periodically throughout beekeeping history there have been crashes in populations. They called it disappearing disease. The survival of a hive depends on each bee’s ability to return to the hive, provide food and warmth and raise the young brood. But in disappearing disease, bees walk or fly away in their thousands or simply vanish. In some cases beekeepers report that the ground is covered in dead and dying bees crawling away from the hive in all directions—as though leaving a sinking ship.

The phenomenon has recently been given a new and more foreboding name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). For two years running, over 30 percent of all hives in the continental United States have died, an unprecedented loss and one that is similar elsewhere. And now the crisis has migrated to Hawai`i.

September marks National HoneyMonth, a time when the honey trade wants to draw our attention to the sweetness that the small honeybee can provide. However there are increasingly fears that this industry, so pivotal to our way of life, may be on the verge of collapse. The National Research Council warned last year that following documented
declines even before CCD, the honeybee would cease to exist by 2035.

Fingers of blame bristle in every direction, depending on whom you ask; the culprits are wide and varied. David Graves, a New York City beekeeper, attributes the collapse to electromagnetic waves from cell phone towers causing disorientation in his bees. John Chapple, president of the British Beekeepers Association, and the first to notice
hives gone in the United Kingdom, blames artificial scents confounding the bees.While many others, including Dave Hackenberg, a major commercial beekeeper in the United States and alarm raiser for bee disappearance there, point towards pesticides. In a recent conversation he described how adult bees survive but the pesticides take their toll on the next generation. As he puts it, “you can’t put a fence around a bee.” If pesticides are on our food, then the bee gets to them first.

The common thought uniting everyone’s disparate opinions is that many factors are at play, each contributing to weakening the bees’ already vulnerable immune system. The words cumulative and synergistic crop up throughout the literature and are on the lips of many experts. In this world of innovation and advancement, the honeybee has been treated like a mechanical cog in the wheel of agricultural industrialization. In a dramatically changing environment, with migratory beekeeping, increasing pesticides and horizon-spanning orchards of a single plant, the bee is expected to remain constant.

A typical bee in the care of a US commercial keeper may travel 11,000 miles as beekeepers haul their hives cross-country on trucks, following lucrative pollination contracts. These bees work months longer each year than a stationary bee, visiting dozens of single-crop orchards, then spending the remainder of the year in subterranean cool storage.

A queen bee normally remains fertile for several years at least, but under these conditions queen bees suffer burnout, and are therefore replaced each year. Experts describe these “abusive practices” as tremendously stressful to the bees. In addition, the new queens come from a historically narrow gene pool; around 90 percent are believed to be descended from at most a few dozen queens, thereby creating a population increasingly vulnerable to adversity.

This is why bees in Hawai`i could be so important. The introduction of honeybees in the late 1800s is a rare example of an alien species not adversely affecting the environment, and providing a valuable service. Within a few decades, commercial beekeeping exploded and a great variety of bee strains were brought in. The tropical climate enabled them to spread throughout the Islands and proliferate.

Since the 1950s honey production rose, so that by 2007, despite Hawai`i as a state having far fewer colonies than others, the average yields and price of honey were the highest of anywhere in the United States. Both managed and wild honeybees now represent an enormous unrealized genetic asset, which could be preserved for future diversity

However, potential disaster lurks in paradise, squished on the fenders of cars and crossing oceans on ferries. O`ahu beekeeper, and president of the Hawaiian Beekeepers Association, Michael Kliks fears the Varroa destructor mite—a tiny parasite—may be the undoing of such a precious commodity. Honeybee pollination in Hawai`i adds an estimated value of $126.3 million to crop production each year. O`ahu alone contributes a quarter of this, but since April 2006 Kliks reports over 90 percent of his hives and the wild colonies on O`ahu have succumbed to infestations of Varroa. They are a common parasite of honeybees and have traveled around the world decimating populations.

Thirty years ago there were 4 million hives in the United States; today that number has fallen to 2.5 million, largely due to the invasion of Varroa. The time to attack them is when the bees are not rearing young, but in a tropical climate bees never stop raising the next generation. The only solution seems to be to react aggressively and to kill any infected colonies. Kliks is despairing that in 50 years of keeping bees organically, even he is now pushed to use chemicals that will kill his bees in order to prevent further invasion of Hawai`i. As he says, “If the mites get off O`ahu, we’re finished. It’s irreversible.”

There is widespread support for this plan, yet the government seems reluctant to mount an all-out attack and has so far only instigated surveillance and management schemes.The Hawai`i Department of Agriculture has asked for more money to address the problem but Gov. Linda Lingle rejected the plea. At this time no compensation has been awarded to beekeepers with infected hives and it is questionable whether keepers will comply with regulations if faced with losing their livelihood. Kliks is adamant that a state of emergency should be called and swift, decisive action is needed. For this to happen the growers, who stand to lose most, would need to band together with the support
of the community, before it is too late.

There are a few places in the world where the honeybee’s numerous adversaries have won. In Brazil, human hands must painstakingly transfer pollen between passion fruit flowers. All pollinators wild or managed have been wiped out. In areas of southern China the same is true. The cost of producing crops this way quickly becomes unfeasible and with
food prices already rising, this paints a grim picture for the future.

Modernization in agricultural practice has brought plenty to many, but in so doing it has overlooked our dependence on this weak link of insect pollination. Despite millennia of exquisite evolutionary adaptation, the bee is suffering under the overwhelming demands we place on it and cannot keep pace. People accuse Kliks of being “overly fatalistic”
about the future of honeybees, but he says “I’m a scientist, I’m not a dreamer. I don’t imagine pie in the sky. If it is not on my plate and I can’t cut it and eat it, there is no pie.”

Perhaps this is the most important thing for us to realize. We all value the variety in our diet, and for too long we have taken for granted the food on our plates and underappreciated the humble endeavors of the honeybees who made so much of it possible.