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The truth about bees

Honey beeThere has been an alarming drop in the number of bees worldwide. But with the current global limelight firmly focused on issues like global warming and climate change, this fact has gone unnoticed.
Honeybees are small creatures that live in hives and produce honey. Although they can deliver painful stings when disturbed, the scary image many of us have of bees has actually come to us courtesy Hollywood movies. But behind the image is the little-known fact that our survival may be linked to this tiny winged insect.

Is it really possible for man’s survival to depend on a creature that’s around 100 times smaller than he is?

Albert Einstein seems to have had no problem relating to the idea. He once said: “If there are no bees on the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Declines in bee populations have been reported in several parts of the world, from 25% in Germany to 70% on the east coast of the US. Many countries, including India, have yet to make realistic assessments of their bee populations.

Honeybees play an important role in plant pollination; indeed some plants, over time, have become completely dependent on insect pollination. Research shows that out of 115 crops studied, 87 depend to some degree on animal pollination, accounting for one-third of crop production globally. Of those crops, 13 rely entirely on animal pollinators, 30 are greatly dependent, and 27 are moderately dependent.

But this is research done on 115 crops. Think of the hundreds of other crops that have not yet been studied. A drop in bee population will surely lead to a reduction in yield of the 115 crops studied. For example, one report points out that in California it takes around 1.4 million colonies to pollinate 550,000 acres of almond tree crop.

There’s an old farm saying that goes: “You can thank a pollinator for one out of every three bites of food you take.” With insect pollinators affecting around 35% of the world’s crop production, this saying is extremely apt, although the decline in bee populations will not be immediately apparent to us as many of our staple crops like wheat, rice and corn do not require pollinators.

Why are bee numbers declining so drastically? Firstly, because of extensive use of insecticides and the practice of monoculture. And second, increased use of genetically engineered material in agriculture. Both these phenomena are on the rise in one of the worst-affected countries -- the United States.

In the US, bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what exactly is causing the bees to perish, although some experts put the blame on the large-scale use of genetically modified plants.

Scientists call this mysterious phenomenon ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD), which is fast turning into a national catastrophe in the US with millions of bees simply vanishing. Beekeepers on the east coast of the US lost more than 70% of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60%. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have estimated the value of bees -- pollinating fruit and vegetable plants, almond trees and animal feed like clover -- at more than $ 14 billion.

Surprisingly, empty beehives are not taken over by other pests, suggesting that there may be something toxic in the colony itself.

In India, there has been no realistic assessment of bee populations although the numbers are believed to be declining. The situation is worse in northern India where intensive cultivation is practised. With a large percentage of the land under monoculture crops, bees do not have enough flowering plants to feed on; insecticide use adds to the problem. In southern India too, rice is the major crop.

The phenomenon of the ‘vanishing bees’ not only affects plants that need pollinators but also the livelihoods of traditional and tribal beekeepers who depend on bees for their survival. In southern India, tribals live in remote parts of the jungle, earning their living by collecting honey and wax from wild rock bees. They are expert honey-collectors with no other farm skills.

The decline in bee populations has other side-effects. Passion fruit in Brazil is hand-pollinated, due to the disappearance of natural pollinators (carpenter bees). Since the fruit is pollinated by hand, expensive day labour is called for, causing prices to shoot up. This eventually leads to slow fruit sales, with people turning to less healthy alternatives. As a result, people all over the world are becoming fatter and more unhealthy.

-- Sushant Sharma
(Sushant Sharma is a student based in New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2007
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