What Our Pesky Bee Problem Could Mean

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I haven't heard a lot about the much-dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder lately -- that syndrome wherein massive bee die-offs seemed to threaten global food supplies -- which I foolishly chalked up to our having solved the problem. Not so fast -- according to this recent article in the Telegraph, the problem hasn't gone away -- 30 to 30% of bees are still failing to survive each winter, three times the historical average -- and we're only just beginning to make educated guesses about the real cause of it. (Bee experts can't agree about what's killing the bees, or whether the die-offs should even be called "Colony Collapse Disorder.")

The one thing we can agree about is that it's serious -- though not everyone agrees that it would mean the end of the world. A number of staple crops, like corn, wheat and rice, aren't fertilized by bees. But it would most definitely be an economic disaster, since many of the most profitable crops that farmers grow -- nuts, melons, berries, and to some extent citrus fruits, apples, onions, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts, peppers, eggplants, avocados, cucumbers, coconuts and tomatoes, as well as coffee and cocoa -- depend on pollination.

So what happens if the bees don't come back? Some desperate farmers have begun to pollinate crops by hand, as they do in parts of Sichuan, China, where in the 1980s pesticides in pear orchards killed off so many bees that today farmers use feather brushes to do it themselves -- an incredibly laborious process, considering that the bees there once visited as many as 300 million flowers in a single day. But this isn't a great solution, obviously, considering how much food the world needs. Bee die-offs will only worsen global food security, which is already in bad shape in many parts of the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, "The number of people without enough food to eat on a regular basis remains stubbornly high, at over 800 million, and is not falling significantly." Even in the good old US of A, one of out six people are considered "food insecure."

Food security has a lot to do with political security, too: "the unrest in Egypt is blamed in part on rising wheat prices," writes the Telegraph, "which has squeezed poor Egyptian households." Many commodities, like wheat and gold, are trading close to all-time highs, driven up by Chinese demand, a weak dollar, a flight to hard assets and severe weather. (Bee die-offs being the catalyst for international political revolutions? Kind of the ultimate butterfly, effect, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.) If you ask the guy from the movie Collapse, he might tell you that the end of bees really would be an apocalypse of sorts.

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February 10, 2011 - 6:42am
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