Interesting Op-Ed column in the New York Times. Mark Winston, a senior prof at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser, wrote about the widespread collapse of honey bees. Winston is one of those super-brains who studied bees and entomology for years and has more recently stepped back to take a wide view of the big ecological picture, without losing touch with his stinging friends. He is one of the ablest of scientists to warn us (yet again) to listen to the little canaries in our cage. His aptly titled piece, “Our Bees, Ourselves: Bees and Colony Collapse” invites us to scare ourselves sleepless about the future demise of our bees – and our own species. He is right to issue the warning.
More than 120 pesticides. Dr Winston says that a “A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides.” I would never eat honey again, except the professor adds that each alone “represents a benign dose.” Great, I will keep eating honey… but then he continues (and this is the red meat in his editorial) to say that together the pesticides “form a toxic soup of chemicals.” The interplay of all those poisons affects the bees’ immune systems, leading to big problems for the little bugs, and significantly impacting Colony Collapse Disorder.
Synergy. We usually think of synergy as a big positive. “The whole is more than the sum of the parts” as Mrs Rabinowitz, my grade-nine geometry teacher used to say. One plus one equals three. No, not the new math – the new reality. Two people working smartly together can carry a 300-pound baby hippo easier than two people separately, each giving it a try. That’s all good and positive, until you start talking about bad things. Bald tires might get you to the bee yard. An icy road might be passable. But put bald tires on an icy road, and their synergy spells ditch.
Mark Winston reminds us of some of the things that synergize to hurt bees:
Monoculture – the bees don’t get a mixed diet; Varroa mites – big blood-sucking monsters; Habitat destruction – lack of diversity, soil moisture retention, and wind break; Pesticides outside the hive – fungicides, insecticides, herbicides; Pesticides inside the hive – with residues that build up in the wax; Stress of commercial beekeeping – moving hives and packing them densely in yards; Genetics – maybe Winston didn’t mention this, but inbreeding abounds; Fungal, bacterial, and viral pests – the little things that we can’t see.
My bees are tough. They can lick any one or two of these enemies. But not two or three (or 120) simultaneously. And this is where the “Ourselves” part of Winston’s story comes in. We are at risk of HCD (Human Collapse Disorder) with our unending messing with the environment. Specifically, Dr Winston points out that in humans it is known that pharmaceutical interactions can be fatal when prescription drugs are used together. We are belatedly studying this. We are not studying the same effect on people from combinations of chemicals cast about in the environment. I’d like to add that one big difference between CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and HCD (Human Collapse Disorder) is that the bees didn’t create their disorder.