Buzzkill

By Beacon Staff

America’s honeybees are dying in droves, and while scientists have figured out the reasons behind some of the deaths, a comprehensive explanation for the phenomena still eludes the research community.

You may have read about the bee die-off, known as Colony Collapse Disorder or C.C.D., in a national newspaper. You may have clicked on one of the many Internet chat room discussion threads on the subject. You may have had someone clutch your elbow at a party and lean in to ask you, in an urgent tone, if you’ve heard about the bees.

According to some reports, more than a quarter of the nation’s bees are dead, billions having left the hive one day and simply become too disoriented to find their way back.

Rumors abound as to the cause. Some blame terrorism or the proliferation of cell phones or new and dangerous pesticides or power lines or God.

Why such paranoia? Bees are arguably one of the most important species on the planet. The widespread decimation of this insect would result in a significantly greater inconvenience than a few less plastic honey-filled bears on the aisles of grocery stores.

Andy Drange, president of the Montana Beekeepers’ Association, estimates that one-third of the world’s food supply is directly or indirectly derived from honeybees. They don’t pollinate everything, but they pollinate a heck of a lot, from vegetables and nuts, to crops grown as feed, like alfalfa.

“When beekeepers are losing 20 to 50 percent of their hive, it could really cut into the food supply in a hurry,” Drange said.

Scientists blame some of the deaths on a bee parasite called the varroa mite, but teams of researchers across the country, including Professor Jerry Bromenshenk at the University of Montana, believe there’s something more going on here and are racing to find out more.

Here’s your chance to groan at yet another hippie alarmist story, and turn the page to see if there is anything more about the tuberculosis-infected Atlanta attorney. It’s easy to grow numb to the torrent of news stories describing any number of scientific phenomena you may or may not need to worry about. These health and science stories come and go, and they’re only too easy to write off. What’s good for you today was supposed to be bad for you five years ago and vice versa. It can be hard to know what to believe.

Depending on your point of view, C.C.D. is either further evidence of mankind’s hubris and feckless ignorance of the delicate interconnectivity of species, or a minor hiccup that the agriculture industry can work around — should it become an actual problem.

The true gravity of the bee decline, as with so many other things, is likely somewhere in between. But I can’t help but find something scary about this. Maybe the bee die-off unnerves me because it’s one of those rare scientific problems that I can actually understand. The sequence of events between a lack of pollinators and an eventual food shortage is simple and logical. It’s not pleasant to think about, but whatever is happening to honeybees reminds us that our reliance on the natural world may be slightly more fragile than we like to believe.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not stockpiling cans of baked beans or buying a generator. I’m not even seeking investment information about synthetic honey producers, although I bet someone’s already done that. And that savvy, albeit cynical, investor could be on the cusp of making a killing.

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