x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bee minus

Food The mysterious disappearance of honeybees around the world is impacting global food prices.

Large-scale agriculture relies on honey bees for successful crops
Large-scale agriculture relies on honey bees for successful crops

It's hard to think of a food that has a more wholesome, rustic image than honey. The deliciously perfumed golden liquid brings to mind sunny meadows speckled with flowers, while beekeeping is widely perceived as a restful, bygone occupation pleasantly removed from modern industry. Unfortunately, this cosy perception couldn't be further from the reality of modern-day beekeeping: hive owners the world over are currently sinking ever deeper into crisis, losing so many bees that it's now believed that their absence may be contributing to the current hike in global food prices.

Behind the postcard-pretty image of apiaries lies a story of decimated colonies, desperate farmers and, increasingly, empty fields. It seems highly incongruous that sweet, sticky honey could have any connection to anything as bitter as world hunger, but as bee populations plummet, the subsequent lack of bees for crop pollination is starting to push up the cost of growing food. While the situation shows no sign of improving, scientists and beekeepers have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the all-important question: what on earth is happening to the world's bees?

Looking over figures on bees over the past few years, it's easy to see why people are taking the crisis so seriously. From America to Asia, hive numbers have been falling rapidly since 2006, but with record falls this year - US beekeepers have so far reported a 38 per cent loss of their hives since last spring - it seems that the crisis may not even have reached its peak yet. Victims of what is now termed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, bees have been going AWOL from hives under conditions that can only be described as spooky. Sometimes dubbed "Marie Celeste Syndrome" after the famous ghost ship, hives stricken with CCD are found abruptly emptied of bees, but without any lack of food or bee corpses nearby to explain their sudden absence. While the syndrome is disconcerting to beekeepers to say the very least, the crisis would most likely be met with little more than grumbling in supermarket aisles if the rising price of honey were the only fallout.

However, it's as pollinators rather than honey producers that the increasing lack of bees is most keenly felt. Roughly a third of human food derives from plants pollinated by bees, and large-scale producers of crops such as apples, almonds and even pumpkins cannot work effectively without the help of insect pollinators. With the current shortage of hives up for rent to pollinate crops during blossom time already pushing up what beekeepers charge farmers, it's believed that the crisis is playing a role in global food price rises.

So what exactly is going on? So far, it's not that easy to say. The drop in bee numbers is well-documented, but as yet no single smoking gun has been fixed upon. Deadly parasites like the varroa mite must shoulder a lot of the blame for weakened populations, as increased global traffic has encouraged the spread of the mite and allowed them to enter areas where local species have not developed resistance to them. It's also believed that the misuse of pesticides may be playing a major role in making bees sicken. While the use of insect-killing sprays on crops is illegal during bloom-time, the rules are poorly enforced, meaning that pesticides are often blown onto flowers (or remain as a residue on crops which bloom later, like sunflowers). This not only kills off honeybees but also decimates a host of other valuable pollinators such as bumblebees or moths. Likewise, air pollution from cars and factories can interfere with bees' ability to smell flowers, limiting their sources of food and thus the number of hives. And to muddy the waters further, some sources have mooted the idea that genetically modified crops are responsible for the crisis.

All these factors make for an environment that is increasingly punishing and difficult for the average honeybee, but it's not just what lies outside the hive that poses a threat. High fructose corn syrup is often used by beekeepers to feed the hives they choose to keep alive over winter, and it may be that all that gloopy refined sugar is as damaging to bees' health as it is to humans. And, if that wasn't enough, the poor bees can't even rely on their hives staying put. Nowadays, bees are transported annually over long distances when they are rented out to pollinate crops. In the US, for example, they regularly travel as far as from Florida to California. While the conditions they are transported in are not necessarily appalling (if they were the bees wouldn't survive), the strain this puts on them is yet another contributing stress on the hapless insects. None of these factors make the life of the average honeybee seem that appealing, but they still don't quite explain why the loss of bees has been so sudden and widespread, with instances of CCD cropping up in such disparate spots as Denmark and Taiwan.

This may all sound impossibly doom-like, but it's important to realise that there are nonetheless some chinks of light poking through the general gloom. While large-scale agriculture relies on honeybees for successful crops, wild plants are pollinated by a host of other creatures and are not suffering the same pollinator famine. In the western hemisphere in particular, where honeybees are not native, the reduction in their numbers has seen a resurgence in the levels of other pollinators, such as non-honey producing carpenter bees. While this doesn't mean that the current situation isn't grave, as different species of pollinator are very picky about which species of plant they go to for their nectar, when it comes to wild plants we are not on the cusp of a worldwide pollinator catastrophe just yet.

Still, with hives falling like ten pins, it's clear that the world needs to find a solution as quickly as possible. No simple answer is yet available, but among beekeepers there is one small but significant group that is reporting far lower losses or no losses at all: organic beekeepers. To understand why they seem to be having rather more success, it's necessary to take a closer look at the standard techniques of conventional beekeeping. Rather than being the small-scale artisanal businesses you might expect, typical non-organic bee yards are often vast places run on along lines that are anything but bucolic. Commercial beekeepers habitually use sulfa compounds and antibiotics to control infections, employ corrosive carbolic acid in honey extraction and calcium cyanide to kill bees in the hives during harvesting. Bees are generally housed in synthetic honeycombs made of napthalin and hives made of plastic. They require extensive artificial feeding, as the plants they are used to pollinate are usually grown on farms specialising in a single crop, where unyielding monoculture can create something of a pollen drought at times. While these have vast amounts of pollen available at bloom time, outside this limited season they are relatively barren from a bee's point of view, with a lack of plant diversity that means the bees have to be sustained some other way.

Organic beekeepers, on the other hand, house their bees on farms that have a wide variety of crops, as well as unsprayed hedgerows and verges. These provide a staggered supply of pollen throughout the season and reduce the need for artificial feed. Bees that are maintained organically are also exposed to an environment that is as pesticide-free as possible. Their hives are more congenial environments for bees, although they can be less productive. Mainstream beekeepers house their bees in extra large cells to encourage a larger body size and thus a greater yield of honey. In organic apiculture, however, the cell size is closer to that of a natural hive, which produces a smaller bee and makes it far easier for them to defend themselves from mites without the use of antibiotics. Not only does this create a happier, hardier bee population, it also creates honey that is more likely to be free of harmful chemical residues, traces of which can sometimes be found in non-organic honey. Organic beekeeping is still a relatively small-scale activity, and by its very nature could not fulfil the needs of the conventional farmers who are feeling the bee slump worst of all. All the same, with conventional hive owners in such a parlous state, organic methods and products are getting more and more respect as a potential model for future practice.

While the conditions and methods of commercial beekeeping can sound rather grim at times, it nonetheless seems a bit harsh to denounce commercial beekeepers when we've all been reaping the benefits the system they make possible. Innovations like transporting hives over long distances have at the very least given us the benefit of cheaper fruit all year round (even though the quality of this doesn't always seems as high), while organic foods have yet to expand their reach far beyond the wealthier sections of society. Nonetheless, it seems that these methods are essentially unsustainable - bees simply can't put up with the strains commercial apiculture is putting on them. While opponents of organic farming dismiss it as a rich person's fad that has no connection to the real business of providing the world with cheap food, organic beekeeping seems to have the edge in the current crisis. As stressed-out, toxin-damaged bee populations are being snuffed out like candles across the globe, one thing is sure: we need to do something, and fast.