Why are bees vanishing?

flowersMaybe it’s a virus. Maybe a fungus. Maybe parasitic mites. Maybe pesticides. Maybe electromagnetic radiation from cellular phones. Nobody seems to know what is causing bees to just vanish. Bee keepers are certainly alarmed. In some cases as many as 80% of their bees just suddenly vanish! There are no dead bees around the hives, no signs of what could have happened. It seems as if the bees left for a normal day of work, looking for nectar, and just never returned. This “colony collapse disorder,” as the sudden decline in bee population has been christened, is not only catastrophic for the affected bee keepers but potentially for all of us. Why? Because if the bees go, a significant part of our food supply can follow. About one third of it, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts, can be directly traced to pollination by bees. This bizarre vanishing act is happening not only in North America but in Europe as well. One possible cause is the varroa mite, which has spread around the world from Asia. It sucks the bees’ blood until they die. Indeed, back in the 1980s, a mite wiped out about half of the North American bee population but the current disappearance of the bees doesn’t seem to fit the same pattern. No specific viral or fungal infections have been noted in the remaining members of the collapsing colonies either. Some researchers now suspect that pesticide poisoning may be at the bottom of this problem. Specifically, pesticides in the neonicotinoid family.

Nicotine, extracted from the tobacco plant has a long history of use as an insecticide. But it is toxic to mammals as well as to insects. A search for compounds with similar activity but less mammalian toxicity led to the neonicotinoids, which interact with receptors in the nervous system of insects, causing eventual paralysis and death, but do not affect mammals or invertebrates like earthworms. These compounds turned out to be excellent insecticides in terms of safety end efficacy, widely used to protect corn and soybean seeds against the likes of beetles, maggots and grubs. But now there is concern that if the bees are exposed to pollen contaminated with these chemicals at low levels, they may not die, but their memories may be affected. Young bees leaving the hive on their orientation flights may not remember the location of their hive and may get lost, never to return. But that is just a theory. As is the one about cellphone signals causing the bees to become disoriented and lose their way. Answers to the mystery of the disappearing bees may finally come from researchers looking into the way certain genes are expressed in the surviving bees. If a pesticide is involved, genes that code for detoxicating enzymes will be more active, if a virus or fungus is the culprit, genes related to the immune response will be over-expressed. But for now, we just don’t know. And where science leaves a void, the nuts fill it. The pattern of disappearance fits the pattern of alien abductions, one UFO devotee informed me. Apparently when he himself was kidnapped by aliens he heard a strange buzz inside the spaceship. Sounded like bees, he says.

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