Monday, 27 April 2009

Bees or not Bees

The world is undergoing a holocaust of a very necessary species for the wellbeing of all of us, and all includes other animal life as well as humans.

A hundred years and more ago wild bees and insects buzzed around the fields doing an essential job of pollinating a range of plants including many crops. Then came highly productive monocultures and losses of natural habitats so that a first death took place - the disappearance of wild bees and many insects.

The result was the European Honey Bee has to be transported by paid bee keepers in many places in order that crops of various kinds keep being pollinated. Yet now so many are dying. It is called Colony Collapse disorder, and consists of either bees vanishing and not returning to a colony, leaving a few helpless if healthy bees behind, or mass deaths at the colony and finishing off a colony that could last for many years.

On Sunday the a video on C-Span won a young person's competition bringing the issue to their public legislators, and back in November 2008 British bee keepers demonstrated outside of parliament. In the evening BBC Four showed a series of programmes about bees (I watched just one).

It seems that colony collapses have happened before, just as the varroa mite, a huge mite for a bee to handle, have been around before, but what's different is the worldwide (except Australia, and some urban locations where bees have mixtures of pollen sources) high frequency of collapses of bee colonies. It is a mystery, but there is surely a weakness among the bee populations in that they are being treated like slaves among monoculture agriculture locations. It is now so ridiculous that bees are being shipped out on aeroplanes from Australia in mass numbers for a 14 hour journey to the western United States where, of course, they will meet an early death in the conditions they face.

It seems that they are weakened by the cocktail of pesticides, some applied to seeds, that have to be applied to monocultures because otherwise some insect predators on those plants would literally have a field day. It's a form of chasing your tail to set up conditions that favour a predator, hitting the predator that then will lead to its suppression, but a mutation of resistance that calls for ever more sophisticated chemical attacks. It seems that the varroa mite could well have mutated itself into the nasty, resistant beast it has become.

Now there is an interesting tale from the timeline of evolution here. It is the Asian Honey Bee versus the European Honey Bee when in Asia and facing the attacks of hornets. When hornets come to a European Honey Bee colony, they attack and destroy mercilessly. When the hornets come to Asian bees, the first hornet scout gets enticed in, and then the honey bees surround it and warm the hornet past a critical temperature and kill it. They then destroy all remains in order that other hornets do not come en masse, that it takes another scout as if coming for the first time.

Clearly this fantastic strategy of defence was mutated into collective action as a result of living with hornets. And we might suppose that, left to their own devices, the European Honey Bee would find solutions to present day weakness. However, it would only do so - if it did so - after a cataclysmic drop in its populations. This sort of evolution by catastrophe does not come cheap to the equilibrium of the world, on which so much depends. And the world cannot afford this loss in its bee population.

Scientists are struggling to find what is wrong and to give a helping hand to the bee. However, we might start where the problems lie. First of all, bees are not our slaves but exist in their own right among a matrix of other insects. We have no right to industrialise them; the Leaf Hive has origins in Switzerland from Francis Huber in 1789, a Ukrainian, Petro Prokopovych, used frames in 1814, in 1845 Jan Dzierzon worked out just the right amount of bee space as used in 1851 by the pioneer of the modern hive, Lorenzo Longstroth, being a top opening hive with movable frames. The Hoffman style frame finished the appearance as seen to this day. These do the job, but they are now being asked to do a job that leads to collapse.

Agriculture has to be less industrial, and less of a monoculture. It needs relaxing, and need nature to return. The pesticides have become too virilent and it needs a return to more biological control via insect interactions. Bees have to be transported much less. There does still need to be a scientific effort, and one process is to breed from the best bees to speed up evolution without a catastrophe. This does not need genetic engineering, but if it comes to such then it will be a sad day that reflects the human incompetence of over-interference for our own ends.

In the end, it needs a change of attitude across the productive side of nature. We have to control our own human populations and return to a more sustainable agriculture - an agriculture that has more wild places. Plus, bizarrely, urban areas need more bee keepers and gardens need to be a little bit wilder and offering more pollen variety.

The Bee has been used as a religious symbol of altruistic obedience and industry, building an architecture of productivity, particularly taken up by Freemasonry for its industrious stonemason that nevertheless has a charitable ethic. Perhaps that is the problem for human corporate sinfulness, in that the symbol of admiration has turned into exploitation. The drone bee perhaps suggests negatively the worker doing repetitive tasks, the agriculture that has become featureless and towards the sterile, pumped up with drugs and intervention to keep it alive.

Bees also come back, and can be a symbol of fruitful resurrection. Here, though, we have a crisis of the Western world, a crisis leading to a huge unnecessary crucifixion without promise of evolved adaptation to what is our destruction and twisting around of the natural.

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