Almost everyone loves bees. And everyone needs bees. They are not merely picturesque. When bees began to disappear from the landscape - and in America and Europe they are disappearing in their billions - it is an alarm signal. Today bees are telling us something, and we need to listen.
Bees are not just disappearing in large numbers, they are vanishing. Entire colonies of honey bees have been deserting freshly made honey and newly hatched eggs, leaving behind no bodies, no signs of struggle, no evidence of the usual insect predators. Hundreds of apiarists have been coming upon scenes similar to the boat found drifting in open water, with food on the table, no signs of distress, no lifeboat missing, and no occupants.
The recent phenomenon of the missing bees has been given a name: colony collapse disorder. Because bees play a key role in the landscape, they are a critical indicator of general environmental health. As one of Australia's leading bee experts, Doug Somerville, of the NSW Department of Primary Industry, told me on Friday: "Honey bees are the 'canaries in the coalmine' of the environment."
I was alerted to the significance of colony collapse disorder by Elizabeth Kolbert, whose superb writing about global warming for The New Yorker was collected in a book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, she told the story of David Hackenberg, a lumbering, beanie-wearing commercial beekeeper in Pennsylvania. Last November he become the first person to raise a public alarm about the disappearance of bees. When Hackenberg began to flip open his hives, he was confronted by something eerie.
"The more he saw, the weirder the situation looked," Kolbert wrote. "The frames all had honey in them, indicating that there had been plenty of food. They were filled with young larvae, or brood, meaning that the bees, usually fiercely maternal, had abandoned their young. There were no signs of moths or other pests that normally invade sick colonies. And Hackenberg couldn't find any dead bees."
As soon as he went public, other beekeepers from around the US began reporting the same experience. None knew the cause. When scientists began dissecting bees from collapsing hives, what they found was disturbing. Kolbert writes: "Normally, if you cut open a bee its innards, viewed under a microscope, will appear white. Hackenberg's bees were filled with black scar tissue. They seemed to be suffering not so much from any particular ailment as from just about every ailment."
The blackened tissue of Hackenberg's bees proved to be typical in bees collected from colony collapse disorder hives across 36 American states and Europe. The cause remains undefined, nor is there a reliable estimate of how many hives have been wiped out by the disorder. What is known is that the commercial honey industry in the US is in distress. This has begun to flow through to American agriculture, where the use of a single species introduced from Europe - the western honey bee - has become crucial to the production of apples, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, almonds and other crops.
Hackenberg has said his business will not survive this winter if colony collapse disorder hits his honey bees again. He has kept his business alive by restocking with bees imported from Australia. This raises the obvious question: what about Australia's bees?
"There are no cases of [colony collapse disorder] in Australia at all," Dave Britton, an entomologist at the Australian Museum, told me. "It is a northern hemisphere phenomenon." He added that there has been some "very creative" speculation about the causes of the colony collapses. Scientists are divided over whether colony collapse disorder is a grave threat or a transitory one. What is not in dispute is that the genetic analysis of adult bees taken from collapsing hives in America has produced alarming results. The bees tend to be infected with every known bee virus, plus new pathogens never seen before.
"What has been chucked at the American honey bee is a collection of things which, taken on their own, bees can stand up to, but collectively sends them into stress and they just give up," Doug Somerville told me. "The difference between North America and Australia is that we rely very heavily on native flora, especially eucalyptus, for our honey production, whereas they rely extremely heavily on agricultural crops. That means their bees' interface with chemicals is much heavier."
It will be no surprise, then, if the underlying cause of colony collapse disorder proves to be the same environmental evil that has already caused so much damage to the American food chain - the systemic use of chemicals - which compounds the loss of biodiversity caused by factory farming.
Although colony collapse disorder is absent from Australia, local scientists and honey-growers are worried. What they fear is something else, the varroa mite, a parasite that has caused havoc to bee populations overseas, including the US, and is now spreading south from Asia. "It's not here, but we're pretty convinced it's coming," Mark Greco, of the University of Western Sydney, told me.
Greco believes this threat, plus the experience in the US, where the wild honey bee population has been replaced by the mass introduction of a single species, should be a wake-up call to Australia. "It's high time we looked to Australian native honey bees to pollinate our crops." The other experts I spoke to agree with him.
At least we have native bees, and honey bees feeding on native flora. In the US, where wild honey bees were once common and diverse, there is now only a single, dominant introduced species. If this population of western honey bees were to dramatically decline, there is no obvious replacement to cross-pollinate the landscape.
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.