Honey, It Ain’t so Black and White
Bees and honey are the perfect example of why I find food politics so fascinating. This is a story that encompasses globalisation, genetics, agricultural monopolies and monocultures, disease, food, the effect of introduced species, and pollination. Many people know about the decline of bees in the US, and I suspect this knowledge will be more widespread with the film ‘The Vanishing of the Bees‘, narrated by Ellen Page of ‘Juno’ fame.
‘A study across 15 different states of the USA by the Apiary Inspectors of America found that from September 2006 to March 2007, almost a third of all honey bee colonies had collapsed.’ (Ref). It’s not just in the US either. Similar collapses have occurred in Canada, South America, Asia and Europe. Colony Collapse Disorder is eerie in its effect, if you’ll allow me that anthropomorphism. The bees who are able to fly, that is, all those but the Queen, pupae and immature bees, fly away and are thought to die singly, and are never found.
The causes of CCD have so far only been guessed at, however. A few years ago, a bee virus, named Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), was discovered in honeybees in the US. This virus is thought to have come from Australian bees. Shipping bees to the US is a billion dollar industry for Australia. ‘Who the hell would need so much honey?’ you ask. Ah, but they aren’t shipped for honey, but to pollinate Californian Almonds, which, just quietly, supply 80 % of the world’s almond supply.
After the almonds season is over, these colonies are shipped around the US to pollinate other crops, spreading any disease or parasite they carry to other bees around the country. It is thought this forced migration might play havoc with the bees systems, making them more vulnerable to IAPV. For a long time the IAP Virus was thought to be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Recent conjecture is that it may be a combination of IAPV and Varroa mite that brings about this collapse.
“It appears likely that our major bee health problems have to do with a coinfection of bees by multiple parasites, notably viruses and Nosema (a gut fungus),” says Randy Oliver, an independent expert who runs the website ScientificBeekeeping.com and who was a principle investigator in a field trial testing RNA interference against bee viruses.
To get briefly technical, the process of RNAi or RNA interference has a large part to play in defence against micro-organisms, and also in gene expression. It can be used by scientists to modify certain genetic expressions, like susceptibility to micro-organisms. This is a very simplistic explanation, and I am no scientist. For more on this, have a look at Microbe magazine or have a look at this video on RNA interference (or, you know, Wiki it).
The other tricky thing is that IAPV is not the sole cause of bee deaths. There are many other factors, including pesticides that are more and more cleverly entwined with the plants themselves, called neonicotinoids – most often used in tandem with genetically modified crops. Neonicotinoids affect the bees’ nervous systems over the long term, disorientating them. Bees are incredible little navigators, with aeronautics designers now taking tips from the way they fly. They’re a bit screwed if neonicotinoids bugger that lovely little function up!
We are lucky enough here not to have Varroa mite. However we do use neonicotinoids. 37 of them in fact, including Clothiandin, one of the neonicotinoids thought to have caused CCD in the US (ref). We also have some of the healthiest bee populations.
When the US APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) halted Australian bees from being imported into the US recently, they quoted Slow Paralysis Virus as the reason. When the CSIRO put forward reports that showed no SPV in Australian bees, the APHIS changed its tune and said the reason was fears that exotic pests and viruses would spread into honeybees from the Apis Cerana, an invasive bee species found initially in Cairns in Northern Queensland.
To me, this seems to be a mature response for a very fragile industry, considering that it seems to be co-infections of viruses, mites, and micro-organisms that has ravaged the bee population. However, it surely will only be effective if action is taken in conjunction with EPA regulations on neonicotinoids in the US, and similar restrictions in Australia.
One Australian Queen bee exporter claims that it is a political push from bee-breeders in Hawaii and California, however (Harman, 2011). Oh, world of food politics. You are so complex.
Take a look at the Vanishing of the Bees trailer below. You can pay per view on their website.
The Vanishing of the Bees
References – for your…reference
- Australian Bees Locked Out, Harman, Bee Culture, Vol 139, Iss 2, P 71