Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The case of the disappearing bees

Honeybees have been disappearing, abandoning their hives in the last year. It's not just the United States, although that's where it started: Canada,Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. Vanishing Bee syndrome, Colony Collapse Disorder, or Marie Celeste disease, as it is known in England, is now worldwide.

To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, consider that 70 percent of bees have vanished in Texas and in parts of New England. It's a serious problem, not just some obsure issue relating to the beekeeper's art. Honeybees don't just make honey, they pollinate agricultural crops and wild plants. A drop in population like this could cause massive agricultural failure. They affect ALL of us.

The cause? Nobody knows. Two recent possibilities include cell phones and other radiation-producing widgets, and genetically modified plants. Here's a quote or two from Der Spiegel on GM foods:
The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees.... The study concluded that there was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.
According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."
Kaatz would have preferred to continue studying the phenomenon but lacked the necessary funding. "Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research," says the professor, "and those who are interested don't have the money."
(Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?)

And on cell phones, this story from the Independent, on the effects of radiation on bees' navigation. Science A Go Go also has some info on this:
Placing handsets near hives, Kuhn observed that GSM cell phone radiation in the frequency range 900 MHz - 1800 MHz caused the bees to avoid the hive.
The House Agriculture Committee's investigation on the bee disappearances has begun, with a hearing by a subcommittee.

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