One quarter of America's honey bee population has vanished since last winter, and the impact on our food chain reaches far beyond honey. As scientists race to find the culprit, is the outsourcing of our farms inevitable?
By Matt Sullivan
It's late-late lunchtime on thE first sweaty May day — the kind that leaves you light-headed, or at least praying for one of the 2008 candidates to come up with a decent global warming policy. Two women sip mojitos and pick at appetizers outside of Esperanto, a noisy café in Manhattan's East Village. And then, from nowhere, squirming: The talkative one clenches her fork and swats it like a tennis racket, splattering a chunk of avocado on the bright yellow dress of the beautiful one, who wrinkles herself back in a folding chair, almost taking out the specials board just to avoid the very unwelcome third member of their party. What these panic-stricken lunching ladies don't grasp, however, is that this furry little guy, also clad in yellow, is just doing his job — more hunter than beggar, more gatherer than bachelor. That if he's at peace here on the corner of 9th and Avenue C, David Graves can actually put some food on his family's table tonight. And so can you.
Across the street in a community garden blasting reggaeton, Graves plops his gym bag on top of a vintage stove and climbs onto the roof of an old shack, blowtorch and aerosol can in hand. And then, from everywhere, swarming: Big, juicy bees — nearly 40,000 of them — cascade into the New York City sky, scouting the trees, the alleys, even the old beekeeper's leathery hands, which gently try to pour this healthy, imported insect colony into a dirty-looking, lopsided wooden box of a hive. Graves, owner of Berkshire Berries, is being extra careful this summer, and not just because City Hall deems rooftop and garden hives like his illegal for being "a direct nuisance to humans." He's also desperate. "I've gotta be cautious this year, and I want to eliminate every doubt," he says, waving his antibiotic spray and hypothesizing about a familiar bacteria that may have forced this box's last group of residents to leave behind an underwhelming batch of honey. "I've always had trouble with bees. It's been a rollercoaster."
The furry little guys we all love to hate have thrown Graves, his colleagues, and a couple million suddenly sick-for-their-stomach people for a loop-de-loop since last fall, when 90 percent of his bees and billions of the world's began losing their way home in a phenomenon officially called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), though sometimes "Bee-S-I." Honeybees, by far the hardest-working vermin in the food business, normally learn their keeper's new land quickly, rummaging around gardens or vegetable patches to collect nectar and pollen in "baskets" on their legs, then dropping the good stuff from flower to flower, fruit to fruit, pollinating next season's crop with instant expertise. "They'll specialize as long as it's useful for them," explains Mace Vaughan, conservation director of the Xerces Society, a non-profit aimed at preserving invertebrate habitats. "They're like, ‘Hey, I'm getting good stuff from this avocado, so I'll keep going avocado!' — and then they just bounce around and go back to their hive." But for all the times a bee's memory is as sharp as its sting, he says, triggers exist that can make it forget where it's going and where home is: "To get into the mind of that bee, imagine just being out there [almost having] Alzheimer's."
Worse yet, imagine this: no apple in your kid's lunchbox, no avocados at Esperanto, no beet layer cake at Spago, maybe not even a ribeye at Morton's. That's the real, albeit long-term threat to the food chain: the power behind one-third of the human diet (plus the alfalfa that feeds cows) vanishing, from L.A. to Tampa and London to Taiwan. The real crisis, however, is that the all-star cast of researchers — from the guy who discovered the West Nile Virus to the one who found SARS — have been racing all year for answers to CCD and, for the most part, they've come up empty.
Rest assured, the apocalypse is nowhere within sight. But amidst all the hysteria and confusion over the 35-state-wide buzzkill, not to mention the spinach recall, the E.coli-laced lettuce that led to the 2006 Taco Bell shutdowns, the mercury that keeps turning up in our fish, and all that contaminated cat food from China, our control over what we eat feels anything like epicurean Eden. If 2006 was the year citizens of the world caught on to climate change, this year could be the one we catch up to our dinner plate.
"I don't know what's gonna happen down the road," says David Hackenberg, a burly Pennsylvania beekeeper who was the first to report CCD when he thought he was going crazy after losing 400 hives from his commercial beekeeping business last November. "I don't think the public really realizes where their food comes from, and I don't think half of the public really cares anymore. Someone's gotta wake 'em up."
f the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left." Albert Einstein was supposed to have said that, but the answers to this vanishing — not nearly the first, but maybe the worst and certainly the least detectable — are everywhere, even on the cubicle desk of a twenty-something nerd in Harlem.
It's there, for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, in Columbia's Greene Infectious Diseases Laboratory — past the RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL warning signs and next to the gene-sequencing computer — that graduate student Sean Conlan represents the last, most equipped line of defense set up to save the bees. Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, he finds overlaps in the honeycomb-style output slides from the computer, narrowing the leads to a possible (and currently undiscovered) cause, then going back to new samples from the CCD-impacted hives and starting all over again. "It's like taking [apart] five copies of Hamlet throwing them in a pile, and trying to put it all back together," says Conlan. "There's not that many groups in the world that are willing to tackle these unknown things."
Those that are, a select group of about a dozen high-profile labs, including the Columbia team, call themselves the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group. Some have no background in insect analysis and all are working pro bono, but they now have a new resource: a sequenced bee genome recently made available "to let the bees themselves tell us how they are being impacted," as the working group's leader told a Congressional subcommittee this spring. The labs are now scouring the unknown and data-mining the known to find out why one quarter of beehives nationwide have died off since winter without leaving much of a trace behind.
What are they looking for? It seems the list of possible CCD causes is almost as long as the line of scientists trading 20-plus e-mails a day trying to confirm it: bacteria, fungi, viruses, mites (which took the blame for major bee losses in the '80s), new disease-causing pathogens, poor nutrition, plain old stress, even, yes — thank you Matt Drudge for scaring the hell out of us — cellphone radiation. (Don't worry, your CrackBerry addiction doesn't make you an agro-terrorist.) Like the beekeepers themselves, researchers are racing but not rushing to judgment. "Whenever you're dealing with agriculture, there's a great deal of concern," says W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Columbia lab and the man who first identified West Nile in humans eight years ago. "There are economic implications that can cost literally billions of dollars in many nations, and if you make the wrong call, there can be serious consequences."
To avoid preemptive prescriptions and media maelstrom messes, such as a University of California at San Francisco entomologist leading the Los Angeles Times to believe one parasitic fungus was solely to blame (what Lipkin calls an "unfortunate event"), the CCD squad has honed in on three of the most likely culprits: unknown pathogens, environmental chemicals, and psychological and physical stresses.
After months pouring over more and more sobering numbers from beekeepers to help tackle that unknown pathogens question, Jerry Bromenshenk is almost as afraid as he is frustrated. "We knew how long this thing was gonna hang in there," says the president of central CCD samplers and surveyors Bee Alert Technologies. "But you can't solve it if the evidence has vanished." Imagine his relief, then, when a beekeeper's brother working at the Army's biochemical threat detection arm asked if a microwave-sized virus detector, normally used for identifying unknown strains like SARS or anthrax, might work for the unidentified bee killer, too. As great as the technology at Columbia is, it might take weeks for Lipkin, Conlan, and Co. to sift through their DNA analyses. Now scientists can take a raw colony sample — a surviving chunk of a hive, for example — and, in less than two hours, scan it thoroughly for any possible pathogens. And yet, speed not withstanding, discoveries have been sparse, with still quite a few samples to get through.
Measuring the effect of environmental chemicals like pesticides is taking even longer. They can localize themselves in a plant's pollen or nectar and crush a bee's already weak immune system. "Bees are now around more chemicals than they have been historically," says May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. "They are encountering new and different ones — an ever-changing constellation of pesticides." Berenbaum's lab, then, is spending the summer doing microarray analysis similar to the Columbia lab, only searching for patterns of exposure to harmful pesticides in affected bees' genetic makeups, one different chemical at a time.
And all that stress? Bees' weak immune systems and short life spans don't match up well with migratory beekeepers trucking them thousands of miles across the country, or with the syrups they're fed — so sugary they'd make Violet Beauregarde pop twice. While several experts have stopped blaming these road warriors, some have begun to find the ironies in a ripple effect of malnutrition in the food chain, where domestication brings pain to the lower rung and ignorance breeds disaster everywhere.
"If you've got bees that were in a beat-down state in the first place, and then you hit 'em with the extra viruses, you hit 'em with the mites, you hit 'em with an insecticide, you bang 'em around on the truck, you do all this other stuff to 'em, they haven't got much of a chance," says Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at the University of California at Davis. "And it's gonna put 'em over the edge."
he apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit," Rachel Carson wrote 45 years ago in Silent Spring, that luminous (if ominous) call to environmentalism. "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves."
Science pundits spent what would have been Carson's 100th birthday this spring wondering if her plea against pesticides was, in retrospect, overstating the case. Around the same time, government officials as high up (if not higher than) the head of NASA began spending the summer after An Inconvenient Truth surmising that tackling global warming might not be a global priority. And when Colony Collapse Disorder quickly began transforming from details in an entomological report into Drudge headlines, even the greenest of treehuggers tried to take a step back.
To be fair, between severe mite infestations some 20 years ago in this country and the pesticide-induced "mad bee disease" in France less than a decade ago, we've been learning these lessons for a while now. And the honeybee population has been headed "demonstrably downward" for some time without any exact way of measuring it, a National Academy of Sciences report chaired by Berenbaum concluded in October. "Not only is it a wake-up call, it's also a snooze alarm," she says now. "It's like one after the other we've been reminded."
To be even fairer, we're not exactly going to be reduced to a bread-and-milk diet anytime soon. The California almond crop, which produces half of the world's almonds with half of America's honeybees — most of them driven (road trip!) west — is expected to reach colossal records this year. And local farmers like H.G. Haskell, just outside of Philadelphia, say "nobody around here is in freak-out mode yet."
But leading minds worry that such cautious optimism with the bees could lead down the same dangerous path toward delayed panic as climate change. They fear that waiting for scientists and experts to discover a silver bullet for what's more than likely a manmade environmental problem leaves the uninformed and the unmotivated equally vulnerable to even more compounding (if inconvenient) new truths.
"I'm not one to run around saying the sky is falling and that there won't be any food in the supermarket, because we know the dynamics of this — if we can't produce our produce and vegetables, somebody else will," says Bee Alert's Bromenshenk, breathing heavily as he crunches numbers from a recent hive visit. "But it'll cost us more, it may not be as good, it may not be as diverse. And the more worrisome thing to me is, do we really want our food and our stores to go the route of our gas and diesel fuel? We're going outside of the country for our primary sustenance."
Indeed, 2006 was the first year that the U.S. became a net importer of food. If most of America, now miles if not generations separated from the agricultural heartland, doesn't associate itself with the breadbasket of the world, then what remains of our investment in Mother Nature? The alternative, should crops begin to dwindle along with their pollinators and we lose our food independence, may begin to taste like globalization's weak backwash. It's become easier to stomach the outsourcing of the automotive and 1-800-number industries over the past decade, but the majority of the food we put in our mouths? That could be the worst return on the United States' 250-year-old stake in agriculture: A fat country once 90-percent farm-based, and then, from ignoring the very chain that sewed its soil, starving.
Some say the attention paid to the bee headlines and the massive lobbying to include pollinators and $3 billion in the new farm bill indicate that there's quite a bit of bang for our bees to be had. Others, like Stanford's Deborah Gordon, who studies the cultural behavior of insects, see this as a "silent spring" for the 21st century. "We are at a moment where, because of global climate change, environmental concerns really affect Americans," she says. "It's not just hope — everybody is going to have to start thinking about what they can do."
With demand (and prices) for commercial pollination soaring as fast as the bees are dropping dead, agricultural advocates are pushing new solutions — biodiversity, more reliance on native bees, healthier insect food substitutes, even a genetically modified strain — for when the summer we waited on the apocalypse doesn't end with a simple answer.
For now, David Graves is more concerned with supplying his customers their $15 bottles of New York City Rooftop Honey and fending for his own family (who happen to be his fellow struggling colleagues) than with a failing food chain. "Honey, it's difficult, because there is short supply—"
A blonde woman, the keeper of the garden on Avenue C, pops out of a bush and cuts him off: "How're the bees doing?"
"They're doing good right now," says Graves, as cautiously optimistic about the slow return of his furry little guys and hot, insect-friendly weather as he is about the promising early returns from faraway scientists and crop fields. "They'll be fine." He describes measures he's been taking to keep these mighty pests alive, from the sterilizing blowtorch to an increase in imported hives, proudly recalling a sign he'd posted the other week at his stand in the Union Square Farmer's Market — between Red Jacket Orchards and New York Beef: THE BEES ARE BACK! NEVER SAY DIE.
On Graves' way out of the garden toward Esperanto on the corner, a Puerto Rican woman, who shows more innocence than dread, catches him off guard, sending his cell phone flying off his belt clip. She pays it no mind: "We gonna have honey this year?"
"I hope so," he says, recovering the phone, brushing off some soil, and continuing on his way.
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