I grew up haunted by the late 70's prophetic announcements that the Killer Bees were coming to kill us all. The killer bees never came and now ironically it looks as if a far more real threat is the collapse of bee colonies around the world.
A recent study of pesticide residues in beehives found 43 differentpesticides present, with neonicotinoids down near the bottom. So the bigger conclusion is that we have soaked our landscape in toxic chemicals, many of which can interact to form even more toxic compounds, and there is absolutely no regulation or testing of this mixing. Most beekeepers and researchers I’ve spoken with believe pesticides are one factor, working in conjunction with introduced parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and quite possibly with deteriorating living conditions for bees. (Poor quality food, too many hours on the backs of flatbeds traveling to the next pollination job, etc.) Bees could handle one or two of these stressors, but not all of them.
More than 100 crops, about a third of the calories we eat, require cross-pollination by honeybees. The grain staples such as corn, rice, and oats are wind-pollinated, but most of the stuff that adds color to our plates and vitamins and antioxidants to our diets—apples, pears, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, plums, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, almonds, macadamia nuts, and so on—would disappear. Plants like lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and onions, which don’t make edible fruits but need to make seeds for next year’s supply, also rely on bees. Bees also cross-pollinate the forage crops, like alfalfa and clover, that are vital to many dairying and beef cattle operations. And don’t forget honey, of course.
On the consequences of colony collapse:
No mass starvation, because the grains that make up the bulk of our diet are not at risk. (Wind-pollinated.) So we’d have corn, bread, oatmeal, etc. And certain fruits, such as grapes, are wind-pollinated or self-fertilizing. And then there’s human pollination, as they’re doing in China. (Take millions of peasants, hand them bundles of chicken feathers, and let them climb through the fruit trees, touching every flower with a bit of pollen from a bucket.) What we’d have is extraordinarily high prices for most of the fruits and vegetables that provide our vitamins and antioxidants, if they could be found at all. And the beef and dairy industry, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, is switching more and more away from natural forage to corn, even though corn makes cattle sick, because it’s cheaper to feed corn and administer antibiotics to sick cattle than it is to use nature pasture. So we’d still have a beef industry, though a freaky one.
But honeybees aren’t on the edge of going extinct. They are, however, on the edge of not being able to provide all the pollination we’ve asked of them.