Perspectives on Saving Bees
The New York Times featured a nice piece today, “Saving Bees: What We Know Now,” in which five folks in academia and the bee industry discuss what’s known about the root causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and how we might address them to make our world a more livable place for honeybees and native wild bees.
Most enlightening to me were the article’s contributions by May Berenbaum (a Cornell alum — woot!) and Diana Cox-Foster, who specifies that a “major worry is that these same causes may be affecting native insect pollinators” — the primary focus here at The Wild Bee. As contributor Marla Spivak stated, “All bees — honeybees and native bees — are still in decline, and it is a serious issue.”
The contributors’ explanations for CCD center on how stress, viruses and other pathogens (mites, bacteria, fungi), sub-lethal pesticide exposure, and poor nutrition due to dwindling natural pollen and nectar sources (grrrr, habitat loss) all contribute to an ultimate breakdown in bee health.
Recent work has linked CCD both to loss of function in honeybees’ ribosomes (cellular organelles that manufacture proteins) and also to a high rate of infection with a family of viruses (“picorna-like” viruses) which overtake bee ribosomes and cause them to produce viral proteins rather than bee proteins.
As Berenbaum said in a recent press release, “If your ribosome is compromised, then you can’t respond to pesticides, you can’t respond to fungal infections or bacteria or inadequate nutrition because the ribosome is central to the survival of any organism. You need proteins to survive.”
In a way, the CCD conundrum resembles the classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Which came first: compromises in honeybee health due to adverse environmental, pathological, and nutritional conditions, which left bees particularly susceptible to infection with picorna-like viruses, the final straw? Or new infection with picorna-like viruses, which rendered bees less able to cope with the usual environmental, pathological, and nutritional stressors, pushing them over the edge to collapse?
For now, we know this much: that when we support bees by reducing pesticide exposure and providing a better diet of natural pollen and nectar sources, the healthier they are, and the less CCD we see.
If you’ve been looking for a nice “easy-read” article to forward to friends and relatives who have been asking “What’s up with honeybees and CCD?” this just might be the one you’ve been searching for — especially if you concurrently want to make the point that we have ample reason to be concerned about the health of all bees, both wild and domesticated!
CLARIFICATION (added 19 September 2009):
CCD is a phenomenon unique to honeybees, and the picorna-like viruses reported by May Berenbaum and colleagues affect only honeybees (Apis mellifera). However, native bee numbers are dwindling worldwide, and pesticide exposure and habitat/food resource loss threaten the health of all pollinators.
Just wanted to clear up any confusion… Ah, the challenges of being one’s own editor. Sometimes, the statement you’re sure you’re making is quite different from the one your audience hears! Mea culpa.