One Plague Lifted?

For well over a year now, of all the things to worry about, I've been especially worried about honeybees. You probably have been, too.

It was some of the most distressing news that made its way across the Internet: Bee colonies were disappearing at a truly alarming rate. Over a third of the U.S. honeybee population, and nearly 50 percent of honeybees in some areas, had simply vanished, as if they had been suddenly recalled to the mother ship.

The apparent epidemic was given a frightening name — colony collapse disorder — that became even more ominous when it began to show up in news stories as “CCD.” CCD was threatening to bring down the apiary industry in much of the world, it was reported.

The effect on agriculture was predicted to be catastrophic. A huge percentage — nearly unbelievable, really — of fruit trees apparently depend on honeybees to thrive, as do many other crops like melons, cucumbers, almonds and zucchini. One highly publicized essay, “Fruitless Fall,” its title inspired by Rachel Carson's epochal 1962 exposé about the effect of pesticides on the environment, explained that a third of the calories we eat derive from fruits and vegetables pollinated by insects. Since the lion's share of insect pollination is carried out by honeybees — upwards of 80 percent — the disappearance of honeybees would have calamitous consequences for our species and for the whole planet. Scary stuff indeed.

Now The Economist is reporting some tentative good news on the bee front. First of all, there's actually a glut of bees this year, at least in the almond-growing areas of California. That's partly because of a decrease in demand due to the economic crisis. Almonds, higher-priced than lowly peanuts, are on the luxury end of the fruit-and-nut market. Anticipating diminished sales, almond growers are reducing costs, including cutting back on pollination services. Apparently, over a third of the U.S.'s commercial bee population has normally been trucked each year to California for the fruit-blossom season. This year there are actually more than enough bees to go around, a reversal of the direst predictions provoked by the CCD epidemic.

This doesn't mean that the CCD scare is over. But the good news is that apiarists, helped along by scientists — who've always had a soft spot for honeybees, I expect — are finding ways to combat the disorder. One solution involves dietary supplements; another requires expanding bees' foraging zones to diversify their nectar sources.

Some specialists — those without bees in their bonnets — have observed that honeybee populations expand and contract cyclically just as the economy does. Or is supposed to.


While the threat hasn't entirely passed, at least it looks as if the bees are likely going to come out on top, after all. Especially encouraging are these words from Francis Ratnieks, a professor of apiculture at Sussex University in the U.K.: “The imminent death of the honeybee has been reported so many times, but it has not happened and is not likely to do so.”

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