Wake up! The bees are on their knees


From The Times
August 10, 2007

Wake up! The bees are on their knees

Colony collapse disorder is threatening our hives

Ben Macintyre

How strange is the hierarchy of our affections for other animals. The extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin is mourned extravagantly because in its round, intelligent eyes we saw ourselves, before we killed it off. Similarly, the bonobo ape of Central Africa has become the endangered animal du jour in America, on account of its supposedly human characteristics, or those we aspire to: peacefulness, intelligence and an abundant interest in sex.

The bonobo is the subject this week of an 11,000-word profile in The New Yorker, in which it is described as a loveable cross between “a dolphin, the Dalai Lama and Warren Beatty”. (I can confirm the highly sexed part because I once interviewed a female bonobo that had learnt to “talk” using a computer at the primate research centre in Georgia. The interview came to an abrupt end when she abandoned conversation and demanded to make love. It was never going to work out, but we still write to each other.)

Nearer to home, the sight of cattle slaughtered to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is horrifying. We care far less, however, for poultry — allowing birds to be bred in conditions of appalling cruelty for sake of a revolting £2 chicken — because the scruffy birds have few amiable anthropomorphic qualities.

There is, however, a notable exception to this rule. One creature, more closely compared to humanity than any other, is dying in vast and inexplicable numbers, and largely unmourned in Britain. It has been cultivated by Man for thousands of years, providing food and inspiration: we use it as metaphor for hard work as well as indolence, politics, love and the ideal society. No other animal, except human beings, uses a representational language, in the form of a complex dance, to convey information. And now that it is facing a threat to its very survival, we hardly care.

This is the humble and beleaguered bee.

Bees are dying across the world at a terrifying rate. The apian epidemic started in the United States, where entire populations of honey bees have simply vanished in the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). At least a quarter of America’s 2.5 million honeybee colonies have been wiped out already, and CCD has spread to Brazil, Canada and parts of Europe.

Bee populations are also sharply reduced in Britain, with some keepers reporting the abandonment of more than half their hives. Defra insists that this is not due to CCD, but many beekeepers fear that the mysterious affliction has arrived here.

There are many theories about the cause of the population plunge — parasites, GM crops, pesticides, global warming, and even radiation from mobile phones interfering with bee navigation — but no conclusions. The implications for humanity of the disappearing bee are enormous: honeybees pollinate about 80 per cent of flowering crops, which in turn furnish one third of the human diet.

The economic contribution that bees make to agriculture and horticulture in this country has been estimated at £1 billion, yet the looming threat to the bee population has been all but ignored. While money is poured into other forms of agricultural defence and support, the Government spends just £180,000 on bee research, a figure that has shrunk continuously over recent years. Put another way: for every £1 the bee contributes to the British economy, we spend less than two hundredths of one penny on exploring ways to keep it alive.

Our neglect of the bee is bizarre given the cultural affinity we claim with the insect. The hive has always been a paradigm for the hard-working Utopia. When Napoleon was crowned Emperor, Notre Dame was festooned in golden bees. At the end of the otherwise dire film The Swarm, in which killer bees threaten the world, Michael Caine observes: “I never dreamt it would turn out to be the bees. They have always been our friend.”

When we tell our children the facts of life we turn for example to the birds and the bees, although having read Bee (sic) Wilson’s remarkable book The Hive, I wonder if this is sensible: the male drone lies around doing nothing all its life, then about one in every hundred gets to mate with the queen, the only point of his existence, after which his genitalia drop off and he dies. The rest are then systematically starved to death or murdered by sterile females.

The perils of dating apart, this insect’s life is sociable and demonstrative (the celebrated waggle dance), hygienic (workers clean one another on demand) and staggeringly industrious, each pound of clover honey requiring nectar from about nine million flowers.

Yet while we worry about the health of our milk producers, we hardly protect the creature making the honey to go with it, or wonder where the bumble bee has gone (three native species are already extinct and nine are threatened).

The National Bee Unit inspection service sounds like something from Monty Python, but it has existed since 1942, performing a function crucial to the agricultural health of the nation. The bee inspectorate is being steadily eroded and starved of funds, with bee inspectors dropping like flies; by 2009 it could disappear altogether, unless the Government is stung into action.

We need bees. When Tolstoy had given up everything else — meat, tobacco, religion — he still loved his bees. Einstein is said to have calculated, perhaps apocryphally: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more life.”

Bees are not as cute as dolphins or as obviously useful as cows. They cannot “speak” like the bonobo, yet as they perish in ever increasing numbers, they are trying to tell us something, and we had better listen.

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