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Plight of the Honey Bee

Plight of the Honey Bee

Dan Tefern
November 29, 2012

Bees are the guarantors of life on Earth.

Since times immemorial bees have been the greatest indicator of overall environmental quality and general well-being on planet Earth. Honey bees are one of the most unique animals roaming our planet, having evolved 35 million years ago from wasps; they possess the most precise navigational ability of any animal known on Earth! They are literally electro-magnetised and orientate themselves according to the magnetic poles of the earth (a process known as 'magnetic remanence').

No other animal on Earth has this unique sense of orientation. Furthermore, bees are one of the only animals (together with sharks and electric eels) that have the ability to exploit the electrical properties of nature during their day-to-day activities. When feeding on nectar, a bee will build up an electrostatic charge whilst flapping its wings against its coat (200 times per second,) which in turn causes the pollen from a flower to stick to their coat due to the charge differential.

The Significance of Honey Bees

Why are bees so important to humans and life on Earth as we know it?

Contrary to animal reproduction, plants need to be pollinated. Some plants can pollinate themselves (known as self-pollination) but most require the presence of certain mediators to disperse their pollen from one plant to another. These mediators appear in the form of animals, insects and the wind (cross-pollination). Honey bees pollinate between 80 and 90 percent of all flowering crops, constituting one third of everything human beings eat on this Earth. Without honey bees, humans can say goodbye to cucumbers, apples, strawberries, nuts, broccoli, asparagus, blueberries and alfalfa- to name but a few species. Their disappearance would threaten the entire beef and dairy industries (as a knock-on effect from alfalfa disappearing - as it is requisite in their feed). In the US alone, it has been estimated that honeybees pollinate approximately $14 billion worth of seeds and crops, every year.

If honeybees were to disappear completely, they would take almost all of our insect-pollinated plants with them, hereby essentially reducing our diet to nothing but water, another scarce commodity on this planet.

Philosopy of the Bee

Honey bees form a matriarchal society where females make up 95% of the population. The sole function of males is fertilising the queen. Honey bees are 'honourable' animals not because they work hard, but because they work hard for others. Prompting Shakespeare to say in Henry V:

“For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.”

It seems that the perfect benchmark for any given society would be having the bee community/ethos as a role model. What we should really be striving to emulate is the conscious empathy and life sustaining duties that the bees do selflessly (with a little more work input from human males over and above insemination duties).

A bee colony is more like one holistic entity than it is a collection of individuals.

Ultimately, for humans it all boils down to philosophy. What view of the world is most in line with everyone's thoughts? What is the truth? What is the best way for us to live as humans? This essentially brings up two polar opposite historical views in philosophy namely;

Thomas Hobbes vs Baruch Spinoza

Are we merely a collection of individuals or part of some holistic collective? Should we care for each other or is it really every human solely looking out for their own good? Imagine what would happen to a bee colony if they adopted this philosophy.

Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical views heavily influenced the political doctrines of his time and also hundreds of years later. Especially in the newly formed America, his notions of individuality vs collective group interest fell on fertile ground. Over the centuries it subtly influenced economists and in turn the global community collectively.

Spinoza said that for a concept of god to make any sense at all, it must be part of Nature, not separate from it. God could not be something outside Nature controlling it, but must be part of it. According to Spinoza, God IS Nature. Einstein loved Spinoza.

Einstein's God:

Hobbes: “The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Underlying the fundamental question: Are we responsible for each other's well-being? What is the social contract? Is compassion important as the head corner stone of society, if yes, are we neglecting it?

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described such a binding human contract in his genius doctrine: The Social Contract. Here he set out to describe exactly what these duties we have to each other are and why they were necessary? He believed all citizens should be bound to this contract, that it shouldn't be voluntary like Hobbes would advocate in his slightly cynical view of human society. Incidentally Hobbes paved the way for social Darwinism before Charles Darwin had ever even been born. He wasn’t a great believer in people or their place in the animal kingdom. On Tolstoy, alluding to the mystery of bees, said that they “occupied territories beyond our comprehension” and as such would never be fully understood. And truly enough, much of the behaviour and unique abilities of honey bees still baffles biologists.

But what is happening to the bees?

Colony Collapse disorder (CCD) was first recorded in North America and Europe in late 2006 where whole worker bee populations of many hives vanished for no apparent reason, in turn causing the collapse of the entire hive/colony.

Possible causes outlined by science:

• Varoa Mites and other insect pathogens (Nosema apis – fungus – most common … Israel Acute Paralysis virus also infects bees though not believed to be responsible for CCD)

• Industrial monoculture crops (soy/corn from Monsanto seeds) leading to environmental stress (due to unnatural conditions) coupled to use of pesticides causing degradation of digestive tract (malnutrition) and in turn weakening of immune response making the worker bees more susceptible to diseases and pathogens.

• Systemic pesticides initially employed to get rid of certain parasitic aphid and locust population in major crops, spilling over into bee population, in turn leading to cascade of genetic abnormalities in 2nd and 3rd generations of progeny

• Extreme weather fluctuations

• Conditions in which honey bees are kept (1 beekeeper for every 65 000 hives vs. 65 000 bee keepers with one hive each)

Most likely it is a combination of all the above factors (a synergistic event) causing the overall weakening of the species. Fluctuations in bee populations have been noted before historically but never entire colonies disappearing across the whole world.

Nonetheless it has been proven scientifically that certain systemic pesticides are directly responsible for the decrease. In particular the neonicotinoids, a neuroactive class of insecticides, have been shown to impact the bees directly by causing specific neurodegenerative effects that can lead to a worker bee's loss of navigational ability and in turn a neglect to feed the rest of the colony, hereby bringing about its collapse. The build-up or 'bioaccumulation' of these chemicals is what is really hurting the bees as a species. We are now seeing the effects across generations of unrestrained human use of pesticides. One of the scariest facts about these substances is that some can directly interfere with a process known as DNA methylation (an essential step in gene expression and replication,) which means that once they enter the food chain, their interference with DNA replication can lead to mutations on a meta level - with whole species extinction, on a scale unimaginable and a scope that reaches far beyond just our own immediate vicinity, not being out of the question.

The potential knock-on effects through bioaccumulation are so grave, that the collapse of the entire food chain is a possible scenario. The French, German and Italian health ministries, all banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2008-2009 due to public protests and targeted collective pressure by the local bee keepers unions.

Furthermore, a study of bumble bees published in the scientific journal Nature in October this year showed a distinct, statistically significant correlation between neonicotinoids and bee behaviour related to colony collapse disorder. Here the scientists showed that chronic exposure to these pesticides is adversely affecting worker bee behaviour; hereby jeopardising the survival of the colony and in turn the entire species. This is the sixth study published this year implicating pesticides as the culprit in the collapse phenomenon. We need to re-evaluate our approach to farming.

The extreme weather fluctuations of the past 40 years (in particular temperatures) have lead to environmental strain and the appearance of novel pathogens. These weather fluctuations are happening due to global warming and climate change through the excessive burning of fossil fuels and pollution that causes natural habitats to become increasingly volatile, in turn not providing the stable homeostatic environment required for animal and plant populations to live and grow healthily.

The practice of mass cultivation apiaries of bees and industrial crops has given rise to conditions never seen before in Nature and some bee keepers believe it is this unnatural, artificially created environment that is giving rise to new diseases that are affecting bee populations.

Bee farming on a commercial scale results in genetic engineering through artificial insemination of the Queen Bee, where Queen Bee replacement strategies are employed (here a biologist will remove the queen from the hive after just 5 months, replacing her with a younger, more “productive” queen that has been genetically selected for- this action alone causes massive unrest in the colony and could be why some worker bees abandon the hive – it’s a bit like a young child having their mother replaced every 5 months). These industrial bee farmers also remove the honey (the food for the colony) and replace it with high sugar-content sugar syrup as substitute – organic farmers liken this to taking a child off a healthy diet and instead making them eat fast-food for the rest of their life (results in metabolic disorders and neurodegenerative diseases). – (VISUAL)

Industrial monocultures with genetically engineered seeds (soya and corn) also create an unnatural environment- there are whole patches of the Mid-western US that are only one type of crop over thousands of acres. Bees cannot survive in these types of environments as they rely on the presence of a multitude of species for overall survival and wellbeing.

“Take the bees out of their natural environment and Mother Nature comes along brings fungus/parasite to get rid of what is not supposed to be there”
(Dee Lusby, bee researcher and co-inventor of the descriptor: colony collapse disorder)

Both types of industrial cultivation (of bees and crops) are driven by the profit incentives of Big Agriculture (Big Chemical and Big Seed companies). These corporations are responsible for creating the demand for certain products by inadvertently advertising the numbers they can reach with wholesale growing approaches. In an-ever growing market place (world population) these targets dictate local customs due to the fact that at such volumes, the produce from these Mega farms often undercuts local pricing of traditional farmers, hereby putting them out of business.

Hence this laissez faire approach has subjected the entire discipline of farming to the influences of the market and capitalistic forces – hereby not only affecting our local environment (genetic cross-contamination of species, general pollution of this scale of production) but also slowly destroying local communities by putting their farmers out of business. So the business of mass-scale monoculture not only affects the human species on a physiological but also on a psychological and sociological level.

History of the Bees

Bees were given a divine status in Ancient Egypt – their honey was referred to as the “Nectar of the Gods” and symbolises Mother Nature and the sacred feminine in Greek and Roman tradition.

A sign of good fortune: a bee landing on your house was a sign of a celestial blessing in Ancient Egypt. The bee was thought to be prophetic, an omen of sorts bringing health and balance to all she visited upon. In many cultures, honey was used as a panacea for every malady under the sun – it seems ironic that nowadays our panacea appears to be the large scale use of chemical intervention to solve problems of productivity in Nature – this panacea in turn leads to the death of another historical panacea (namely honey) by targeting its makers, the bees.

Recently it has also been discovered that bee venom has medicinal properties, it has been used for treating arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even fibromyalgia, and more recently to treat sexual dysfunction, cancer, epilepsy and depression.

It is important to note that the systemic pesticides used today were designed in the same labs used for the purpose of research into chemical weapons during World War I and II.

“Pesticides moved from the battlefield on to the dinner tables within a generation” (P. Mimkes, Coalition against Bayer Dangers)

What can we do?

In conclusion, it is as much a fault of our out-of-control industrial-style farming practices that inadvertently abide by the laws of free-market economics by being under the control of corporations, as it is our own misunderstanding of what the best system for society really is. Should we be solely focussed on wealth accumulation i.e. profit above all else capitalism by putting profit before more holistic goals like keeping the planet safe and in balance?

Bees are responsible for the fertilisation of nearly 80% of the food on Earth and it is estimated in the US alone for $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables.

So it is a commodity with value – this presents a double-edged sword regarding the traditional cultivation vs industrial “milking” of the commodity to maximise the profit for the large corporations (their legal obligation to their shareholders). It almost seems as if the bees presents a powerful opportunity for us to address the proverbial elephant in the room regarding our collective attitude towards certain economic principles (i.e. for profit ventures that result in the decimation of intrinsically important stalwarts of our environment, over and above the obvious pollution of the Earth through large-scale industry itself). It’s almost as if the decline in the global bee population is the alarm bell for us. Nature is ringing in order to wake up those of us still sat in the corner with our blinkers on hoping that “the whole problem will just go away” or worse haphazardly sweeping it under the carpet. If the bees disappear, this planet will become uninhabitable for Homo sapiens and most other living beings. They are essential to the entire system, yes we could eventually manufacture food ourselves in Petri dishes and utilise hydroponic indoor vegetable farms, but would we be able to make the food mimic the quality of what it is we would normally grow according to the way the food was designed to grow i.e. come into being?

Without Nature what is this Earth? In the US, a 96% decline of some species of honey bees has been recorded in recent years, whereas in New Zealand over the last years the decline witnessed has been relatively 'mild' in comparison (at last consensus 2011, the population has decreased by 30%).

But then something happened that held the world in awe. It was reported in September 2012 that the bee hives in Auckland region had gone silent indicating that the worker bees had abandoned their hives. What was worrying was the rate at which this started happening. Over 70% of the bee hives were believed to be affected by colony collapse disorder. And it all happened over a period of two months. This was the fastest rate witnessed at such a high volume in the entire world. Auckland bee keepers were stunned.

As opposed to the continuing decline in North America and New Zealand, certain countries in Europe have seen a stabilising effect of their bee populations. The difference between these geographic regions is primarily the response of the respective Ministry of Environments in European countries that have voted to ban systemic pesticides like the neonicotinoids, from use in farming and the curbing of the industrial scale approach.

In contrast to the US, New Zealand does not really employ industrial farming or monocultures, but our local farmers are still allowed to pollute the environment by using the toxic pesticides banned in most of Europe. The push has to come from somewhere as these pesticides have an environmental impact over and above affecting bee populations, their neurotoxic qualities affect our food supply and whilst mammals do not get affected as extremely as insects, these chemicals do exhibit certain neurodegenerative effects in mammals, including humans, too. This alone should cause enough concern for people to act.

The fact that the majority of the environmental strain on our planet is being caused by corporations seeking profits, spurs an anthropomorphic thought analogy regarding the ecological and behavioural differences between wasps and bees, as this is actually quite an apt metaphor for what is happening here. Bees evolved from wasps about 35 million years ago, long before the first Homo sapien species walked the Earth bipedally.

Wasps are predators that feed on the weak and defenceless in the animal kingdom- they are often greedy and often parasitic, some wasps eat so much that their abdomens literally burst. Bees feed on nectar and are the providers for the entire ecosystem of our planet, consciously pollinating almost all food crops and plants that exist. They are selfless and live in an egalitarian, matriarchal society. Wasps are mostly solitary looking out only for themselves, if they pollinate flowers and plants, it happens by accident.

Colony collapse disorder is the direct result of the last 150 years of human industrialism, of us recklessly polluting the environment like we owned the planet, all in the name of profit. There are specific products that have been empirically linked to the collapse phenomenon.

One company in particular is a massive culprit. Initially they produced chemical weapons during the Second World War, then they used the exact same chemical processes and compounds to make pesticides when the war was over and their profits waned. Literally in the same laboratories.

This chemical warfare was extended to the animal kingdom and the bioaccumulation of these toxins in animal species is causing an environmental catastrophe on a scale never witnessed before in history. Over 50% of all species are on the decline or going extinct.

Over and above bees, whole species are disappearing due to deleterious mutations caused by these novel chemicals. Whenever nature senses something that is not supposed to be there, it gets rid of it.

It’s not only the flora and fauna that is affected, we are all eating these toxins every day, they are in our food chain. The bizarre and slightly surreal part is that we don't have this technology because we have to use pesticides to sustain farming, no; we needed pesticides in order to do farming on an industrial scale.

No communal farmer uses these products. Only the giant food companies use them because it increases their crop yield and in turn their cash flow. No one talks about the fact that over 50% of all this food produced from this type of farming gets thrown away before it even reaches any dinner plate. This scale of farming brings production price down and profits up. Nothing else.

We don't need these crop yields to 'feed the world' because the corporations don't care about that and never will. Their sole motive is profit; to feed the defenceless and in turn make them weak and eat them.

Corporations are wasps. Human beings are bees.

Something has to change. If bee pollination ceases completely this world will be in a serious bind, we are already manipulating entire crop genomes to prepare for this event. When it happens and it seems like we're pretty close to that tipping point, our lives as human beings on this fragile planet will change forever. Imagine for a second a world without bees? What will our environment look like with no plants and flowers? No more cross pollination, a process that is so essential in order to ensure the natural genetic diversity required for the survival of all living things.

But there is a way out. There is hope. A solution that we can all take part in and proactively help make things better and in the process it will bring us closer together as a species: Because we are all to blame. The funny thing is, we actually control these corporations; with our forks, with our brains, with our knowledge and with our collective awareness.

It just takes a bit of a shift of behaviour on everyone's part. Every person everywhere has to change their ways and use their brains. Vote and shop intelligently and most importantly, sustainably. If anything, for the bees and for our own survival. We don't own this planet, we are mere visitors.

Auckland city bees are disappearing, at an alarming rate, over a short period of time. Three quarters of all hives in two months. An unprecedented rate, never seen before in the world (average collapse rate is 6-8 months.)

Now with New Zealand affected, colony collapse disorder has officially become a global phenomenon.

Alarm bells are ringing.

Poland and Hungary have already banned most Monsanto corn from use on their land. France, Italy, Germany and Slovenia have decided to ban certain neonicotinoid products that were deemed harmful to the environment by the effect they were having on bee populations.

Furthermore, November saw a large debate stirring in the UK parliament regarding pesticide usage on seeds and subsequent ramifications on pollinating insects, with a particular focus on the honey bees. Various British MP’s are arguing that UK laws are outdated and do not take into account the full impact that chemical industries are having on our environment. What is being called for is a legal framework that protects our environment from the harmful effects of industrial pollution.

It's time us Kiwis pulled our socks up and started living up to our reputation as a “100% Pure” green folk that has no qualms about rising up to what is possibly the most important challenge we will ever face in our entire lives.

Namely saving the bees. And in turn, saving the planet.

Restoring balance.

Maui Ora.

The three P's- (how to react proactively):

Petition ---> Avaaz honey bee petition
Petition to Legalise and facilitate personalised bee keeping all throughout NZ. Talk to local farmers regarding their use of pesticides (quote the latest study by the University of London in Oct 2012 Sign up to become a bee keeper:

Protest ----> Outside Beehive in Wellington (ban the neonicotinoids from use in NZ) - here the Berkeley protests in May 2012

Organise a local screening of (see link on how to get permission) – invite your local MP to come!

Personal ----> Vote! We vote 3 times a day. Vote with your fork! Choose organic produce, shop at local farmers markets , plant a garden, join a co-op in your local community.

Start an apiary!

Become sustainable. Buy honey from New Zealand

Question the intelligence of using a capitalist system as the economic benchmark for global food production. Ponder the logical consequences of our current system (i.e. profit before quality etc)

Prominent Twitter Bee Activists (12,000 followers) (11,000) (5000) (2000) (600)


There is another sky - Poem by Emily Dickinson

“There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields -
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!”


• Whitehorn, P. R., O'Connor, S., Wackers, F. L. & Goulson, D. Science 336, 351–352 (2012).
• Henry, M. et al. Science 336, 348–350 (2012).
• Gill, R. J., Ramos-Rodriguez, O. & Raine, N. E. Nature
• "Pesticide Information Profiles: Imidacloprid". Extension Toxicology Network. Retrieved April 7, 2012.
• National Pesticide Information Center. Imidacloprid: General Fact Sheet. May 2010.
• Lu, Chensheng; Warchol, K. M.; Callahan, R. A. (2012). "In situ replication of honey bee colony collapse disorder (13 March 2012 corrected proof)" (PDF). Bulletin of Insectology 65 (1). ISSN 1721-8861. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
• Carrington, Damian (March 29, 2012). "Pesticides linked to honeybee decline". The Guardian. Retrieved April 7, 2012.
• Didier, Elizabeth; Vidau, Cyril; Diogon, Marie; Aufauvre, Julie; Fontbonne, Régis; Viguès, Bernard; Brunet, Jean-Luc; Texier, Catherine et al. (2011). "Exposure to Sublethal Doses of Fipronil and Thiacloprid Highly Increases Mortality of Honeybees Previously Infected by Nosema ceranae". PLoS ONE 6 (6): e21550.
• "USDA Colony Collapse Disorder Progress Report" (PDF). USDA Agriculture Research Service. June 2010.
• McDonald, Kim (23 May 2012). "Commonly Used Pesticide Turns Honey Bees Into 'Picky Eaters'". UCSD News Center. Retrieved 30 May 2012.



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