To Bee or Not to Be


Rising food and fuel prices are on the minds of much of the world. These realities exist hand in hand. It takes lots of energy for the massive food production needed to sustain (and in many cases, fatten) over six billion human residents on this orb. Thus, it is futile to think the cost of one will be unrelated to the other. Alongside these very noticeable realities, though, there is another busy contributor to food production. It is the honey bee.

Consider the lowly honey bee. Actually, not many people do, and maybe understandably so. It isn't even native to North America. About all most people know of the bee is of its painful sting and its sweet produce. More important than either of these is its role in the world's agriculture.

Currently, there are approximately two and one half million "domesticated" hives of bees in the United States, that is, they are maintained in boxes called "hives." "Domesticated" is a bit of a misnomer, because they are hardly "tame" and the sting still hurts! There are many other honey bees that live in the wild in trees and in other containers in which they establish a home. However, at least 90 percent of these "feral" bees have been eliminated over the last quarter century, primarily as a result of a variety of parasites, diseases and, quite possibly, pesticides.

Many fruits and vegetables are at least partially dependent on pollination by insects. Chief among those insects is the honey bee. Some crops, like the almond, are entirely dependent on insect pollination. It takes about a million hives of bees to pollinate California's almond crop alone! Thus, for a number of weeks each year, fully 40 percent of all the domesticated bees in America are in almond groves. With most crops, there would be some harvest with fewer or no honey bees. In many cases, though, the quality and quantity of that harvest would be greatly reduced.

One might assume bee hives stay where they are placed. Such is hardly the case. Commercial beekeepers routinely lease their hives to agricultural interests and move the hives of bees from place to place in conjunction with a given "bloom." Many hives are moved several times during the course of a year as spring comes earlier in the south than it does to the north. The commercial beekeeper rightly benefits from leasing the hives as well as from the honey harvest.

As a hobby beekeeper, I know a little of the challenges commercial beekeepers face. The bee world is filled with an array of enemies including parasites, fungus, disease, malnutrition, pesticides, immunodeficiency, electromagnetic radiation, the possible negative effects of genetically modified crops, the encroachment of Africanized bees in the far Southwest and the stress on bees coming from regularly moving them to new locales.

Some of us have heard of a new phenomenon called "Colony Collapse Disorder." Mainly a problem in the far West, tens of thousands of colonies of bees are disappearing. "Apiarists" regularly find hives devoid of bees. This adds to the crisis of a honey bee shortage in America, a reality stemming from the above problems and the fact that many commercial beekeepers are retiring. At this point, there is no sure scientific evidence as to why CCD exists. The best rationale science can offer is that there are numerous potential reasons.

Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, documented the negative effects of growing pesticide use, especially their impact on birds. The book posed the possibility of a spring when no birds would be present or singing. It is credited by some for helping to launch the modern environmental movement. To be sure, some progress has been made with regard to pesticide use. In fact, their use is a modern necessity if humans are to continue to depend on fewer and fewer people to produce more and more food on less and less land. Unjustified alarmism today can damage the environmental cause as does the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

As to CCD, I suspect the phenomenon is a result of a combination of parasites, pesticides and stress. Some parasites can inhabit a hive but cannot "hitch a ride" if the bees desert it.

Additionally, bees build their homes and produce their food from nature's provisions. Since many such provisions contain pesticides, the accumulation of these chemicals may, over time, make the hive uninhabitable.

As silly as it may sound given that they are merely insects, if I were pestered by pests, poisoned by chemicals and being moved from place to place several times a year without my knowledge and against my will, I might say, "I'm outta here!" as well.

In either case, I pray that bees are not playing the role of the "canary in the mine," announcing long before we sense it that the environment is nearing its limit of inhabitability.

Of all the factors threatening bees, pesticides may be the more manageable one. Some pesticides can and do negatively impact the presence, strength and functioning of honey bees.

That is not to say that all pesticides have the same effect. It is to emphasize the importance of our using common sense, solid scientific evidence, and sound ethics at every level in the food production system if the world plans to continue eating.

Beyond that, there is abounding evidence suggesting that if we humans don't learn to live with, appropriately exploit, protect and even defend God's other creatures, we or our descendents will, in time, likely be declining and/or perishing with them.

Reginald Warren is senior pastor at Orcutt Baptist Church in Newport News, Va.

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