The Absence of Bees

Where have the bees gone? During the past winter in the United States nearly all the inhabitants of a large number of hives suddenly disappeared, leaving only the queens, the eggs and one or two young workers. In that country, the loss of bees goes from 60% on the Pacific coast to 70% on the Atlantic coast and Texas. Beekeepers in 27 states noticed with alarm that millions of bees were missing without a trace, neither inside nor outside the hives, where bees usually leave the bodies of their companions.

Their disappearance makes obvious the link between bees and food. In the United States, bees are responsible for pollinating fourteen million dollars worth of crops, and it is estimated that a third of those that are eaten depend upon that pollinating. Crops such as almonds, avocados, kiwis, cranberries, melons, pears and peaches are endangered. The bees leave their hives in search of pollen and nectar and never return, and nobody knows for certain why.

Among the possible causes for their absence are viruses, fungi, genetically modified crops, malnutrition and the accumulation of insecticides in their bodies. The use of certain pesticides that attack bees, besides debilitating them, has reduced the capability of the queens to produce worker bees. There are those who blame climate change. Another significant factor is the stress suffered by bees when transported all over the country in huge trucks, which reduces their resistance to sickness. Beekeepers are like nomads, carrying their bees to pollinate crops. Their income from pollinating is greater than that from honey, and the owner of a colony of 15 to 30 thousand bees collects up to $135 for one pollinating service.

The pressures on bees are increasing. Through the loss of countryside, thanks to the voraciousness of urban development, each year there are fewer places where the bees can look for the nectar essential for their health and their activities. To supplement their food, beekeepers give them protein supplements, sucrose and glucose, as in the fattening of chickens in bird factories. Neither the birds nor the chickens roam free.

There are still farmers who deny access to bees in search of nectar, to avoid the pollinating of certain crops. According to Egyptian mythology, bees were made from the tears of Ra, the sun god, falling to earth, but today not even the sun allows them to appear.

In Europe also the bees are mysteriously disappearing. In Spain, during a few months of 2005, 290 billion bees disappeared and no remains were found, in what was then called “the debeeing syndrome”. The hives were full of honey and pollen, but in some parts of the country the depopulation reached 50%, when the normal mortality rate in the hives, at the beginning of winter, is around 4%.

In England, there is concern about the phenomenon known as the Problem of the Collapse of the Hives, and the bee protection associations have asked people to grow flowers that attract them. In France, the use of insecticides with a base of fipronil and imidaclopride –commercialised as “Regent” and “Gaucho” – have been banned for years. They are considered lethally toxic for bees, as proved by the fact that the more their use was extended, the more bees died.

A short while ago German scientists suggested that the cause of this sudden and mysterious death of the bees was due to the extended use of cell phones, noting that the bees were not returning to their hives if someone was using a cell phone in the vicinity. Supposedly, the radiation emitted by the phones interferes with the bees’ navigation system, leaving them totally disorientated.

In 1923, the Austrian Karl Von Frisch, who 50 years later would share the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, students of animal behavior, described communication between bees. When a bee discovers a field in flower, or a new food source, it fills itself with nectar and returns to hive to inform the others, by way of a complicated dance, of the location of this source. Decades later, von Frisch demonstrated that bees use the sun to orient themselves. If they cannot feed themselves freely, if they cannot fly by using the sun as a compass, and if they are so disorientated that they cannot find the way home, perhaps there is nothing for them to do but to die.

In Mexico apiculture existed long before the coming of the Spaniards, who introduced the European bee (Apis Mellifera), which differs from the native bee (Melipona Beecheii, or Xunan kab, its Mayan name) in that it has a stinger. In the Mayan region, where apiculture is most practiced, honey is used to sweeten food, for medicinal purposes and in alcoholic beverages. This native bee is in danger of extinction due to the destruction of its habitat, and because of the arrival of the African bee in the Yucatan peninsula. There are some two million hives in the country, and Mexico occupies fourth place in the world for honey production, but the use of cell phones and pesticides is also on the increase, as is the unchecked construction in natural areas. As for the change in the climate, we already observe its impact on many species and ecosystems.

Albert Einstein predicted, “If the bees should disappear, man will have four years of life left: without bees, there is no pollinating, nor grass, nor animals, nor man”. Is this the bitter future we want? Today is Earth Day.