Vanishing honeybees:
Last year it was announced that there was a serious problem with honeybees.  (Russell Ray, THE TAMPA TRIBUNE, The New Center, 200/202 S. Parker Street, Tampa, FL 33606 4/6/2007 page 1.)  It appeared that the bees simply wandered off, deserting the hive and leaving the larvae to starve.

Honeybees being so important for agriculture, a lot of work was done to try to determine the cause.  Some sort of infection or poison from pesticides seemed likely candidates, but no truly satisfactory explanation was found while I was following the story.  They couldn’t nail down a chemical, and the epidemic spread to many states without a specific pathogen found.

One thing that was obvious from the very beginning was that this malady only seemed to strike the big commercial operations.

Beekeepers, I learned, fall into two distinct types.  There is the small family oriented operation with a few hives that are carried around locally, and there are the huge commercial operations where the number of hives can be in the thousands and the bees are trucked from state to state following the time when they are needed by the big commercial farms.

The mom and pop operations were spared. 

I learned a little more informally.  Bees are dangerous.  More Americans die each year from a hypersensitivity response to bee stings than die of snakebite.  That may have a lot to do with bees being more numerous and harder to avoid.  Personally, given the choice, I would choose to be stung rather than be struck by a poisonous snake, but then I have been stung more than once without any particular ill effect.  But for many people, a bee sting is not benign.

Accordingly, at least in the state of Florida, bees tend to be kept in specified areas.  You can’t just have a hive at home, and if you do and one of your bees kills somebody, heavy heavy hangs over your head. 

The queen bee lays all the eggs for the colony.  She mates in mid air with drones, the otherwise useless but harmless males.  Drones don’t sting.  She only takes on flight, but may mate with several drones on the occasion.  It must be quite the social event.  The drones that succeed in fertilizing her evidently die in bliss.

There appears to be an advantage to having more than one drone to mate with. (Heather B. Mattila and Thomas D. Seeley, Genetic Diversity in Honey Bee Colonies Enhances Productivity and Fitness SCIENCE vol. 317, no. 5836 July 20, 2007 page 362)  She may have lines from as many as 16 males in the hive at the same time. 

During her nuptial flight, she is receptive to more than one male, and the males are not choosy.  They do not limit their amorous attention to their own queen.  If there are other hives nearby, other drones will join the event.

As hives need to be replaced, it is customary to order a new queen from a commercial house.  With so many hives collapsing, American bee lines became unavailable.  So the solution was to order queens from Australia, where the problem does not, so far, occur. 

That means that the American honeybee is quietly going extinct.  Cold comfort if you are hypersensitive, since they are so far being replaced, but it seems a little sad. 

Diversity in the hive may be a good thing, but there can be too much of a good thing.  If a big operation has thousands of hives and ships hives out of state for months, where they interact with other bees, the bee community becomes effectively an urbanized population.

And we know what that means: catastrophic loss of fertility.  It is not clear that infertility is the exact problem.  On the one hand they don’t find dead bees in the dead hives, as would be expected if there were toxins or pests, but they did mention that there were larvae left behind to do the starving, which would seem evidence against infertility being the sole and only cause of the problem.  But it could be some other sort of problem along the same lines, some sort of failure of signals between bees being sufficiently “agreed upon” to maintain hival organization.

That would account for the fact that the epidemic strikes the big operations in most states but spares the small ones in all states. 

If this is the case, and I doubt it is even being considered or researched, however many billions of dollars or agricultural output may be at stake, then it just might spell trouble for Australia, too.  If the reason Australian bees are spared is that beekeeping there is a bunch of mom and pop operations.  That would be in keeping with the independent Australian experience, but I have no facts to bring to bear.  But if that is the case, that could well change soon.  Replacing all of America’s queens would mean raising a lot of bees.  The people who ship them will be the people most comfortable with globalization.  They will not hesitate to become enormous commercial bee factories if the money is there.

So the problem may return to haunt us.

This is not the end of the world.  There are a lot of other insects that fertilize plants, and the impact of the honeybee is only about 16 billion dollars a year, which makes the manned space program seem positively expensive.  It is however a hint, just a hint, that fertility depression or other genetic problems can be caused by a population size that is excessively large and diverse.

Of course we have already presented far more powerful proof in humans. 

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