Dissecting an Ecological Disaster
The Dangerous Demise of the American Honey Bee
By Guenther Hauk
In order to combat the mysterious decline of honeybee populations around the United States, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), we must first rethink our approach to agriculture, changing the way in which we interact with the natural world.
Once this insect was revered as a sacred animal, along with the cow and the scarab beetle, all of which were known to create fertility, a thriving flora and fauna, throughout the land. Not only agriculture, but our very lives depend on honeybees. Today, reverence has given way to a single-minded emphasis on the economic returns they can provide: how much milk, how much honey, how much pollination service can I get out of the cow and the honeybee?
CCD is not the first crisis honeybees have faced over the years. In the 1960s there were inexplicable great losses of colonies in Europe. With the advent of the varroa and tracheal mites and with the spread of American foulbrood (an infectious disease caused by bacteria that targets whole colonies), great losses had to be endured.
By the mid-1990s one could read estimates that here in the United States the number of colonies had dwindled from 7.5 million down to 2.5 million.
The way these crises were handled was no different from how we tend to take care of human illnesses today: we always look for the silver bullet, the imaginary salvation fabricated by Hollywood. The chemical industry offers one chemical to combat mites and another against foulbrood. By now we should know that solutions such as these are not only short-lived and bring with them many unwanted side effects, but they also upset the delicate balance of interdependence in the household of nature.
For some years now our efforts have been intensified to breed the bee: one that can let us do with her whatever we desire. Thus an ad in beekeeping journals a few years ago stated: “We asked the bees what would make them more profitable.” This “superbee” would be able to cope with mites, hive beetles, viruses and bacteria, and would stand up to all the environmental poisons: insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
We have become accustomed to focus on these attackers of the honeybee as the enemies that have to be conquered. We do the same when we blame other individuals or other nations for our problems, without first questioning our own attitudes, beliefs and practices. In the case of the honeybee, it is our farming practices and our beekeeping methods that must be scrutinized if we are to reverse the calamity that is threatening.
In the last 150 years many critical inventions have permitted beekeeping to become commercialized, so that apiaries can be run like factories. Colonies are trucked by the thousands from one monoculture to the next. Queens are bred artificially and exchanged like the batteries in a cellphone, with one difference: the rate of exchange is much faster.
In our efforts to create the superbee we don’t shrink from artificially inseminating queens—an impressive technical feat, but one that is completely against the bee’s nature. We raise millions of queens merely to kill them on their eighth day of embryonic development so that we can harvest royal jelly.
Thousands of tons of corn syrup or sugar syrup are fed to our U.S. colonies so that we can harvest practically all of the honey instead of the surplus. No one asks what this does to the honeybee’s metabolism, the delicate balance between the acidity of its digestive tract and the alkalinity of its blood. For simplicity’s sake we also give the bees plastic foundations upon which to build their honeycomb: not only as a place where honey is stored, but also where the brood is raised. Perhaps we humans will also have wombs with plastic inserts in the future and call it progress.
We treat the honeybee like all other animals in the factory-farming model, all of which have experienced disastrous declines in their vitality as a result. The Holstein cow, for example, pumped full of high-protein feed, hormones and antibiotics, will give almost twice as much milk as she normally would, but instead of living 20 years and having 15 calves, she now has a life expectancy of three to four years and an average of 0.9 calves in our dairy factories.
Are there any solutions to the honeybee crisis? There are, but none that is easy or quick. The attitude that readily sacrifices wholesomeness for a quick monetary return results from the fact that we actually know very little about life processes and the laws that govern them. A return to humility and reverence for the mystery of life, an admission that, clever as we are, we still have much to learn if we are not to destroy ourselves, is the first step in a truly effective response.
Although some scientists have recently theorized that mites, viruses and bacteria have compromised the honeybee’s immune system, the exact opposite is true: We have undermined her immune system with stress, poisons, genetically modified crops and ever-moreindustrialized beekeeping
In turn, external “enemies” whose task in nature is to get rid of what is sick have been given new opportunities to do their work. This is a thought that will not be accepted readily by professional or even hobby beekeepers since it demands radical rethinking and re-evaluation of what we have accomplished in the last century.
Our own lives depend on whether we decide to take responsibility for our role in the decline of the honeybee. If we do, this crisis may become a true turning point in the creation of a life-sustaining agriculture.
Guenther Hauk is the program director of the Pfeiffer Center (www.pfeiffercenter.org) and will relocate this summer to southern Illinois, where he will establish a honeybee sanctuary on a biodynamic farm. Visit spikenardfarm.org for more information. This article was from the May 2007 issue of Acres U.S.A, a national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record—over 35 years of continuous publication. To subscribe, call toll free at 1-800-355-5313 or write P.O. Box 91299, Austin, TX 78709.
(Issue #23, June 4, 2007)