Last time I alluded to the fact that pollination could be imported.
"Impossible," you say.
"How could it be?," someone asks.
"Not a chance in h***," I hear.
Wrong, all wrong. The U.S. has imported pollination from off shore for the past 3 years or so. Really.
Here's how that works.
The U.S. has had a ban on importing honeybees from other countries since the 1920s. That's when we closed our borders to keep out bees suffering from something called Isle of Wight disease. This new, incurable disease was killing bees by the score in the U.K. and elsewhere. That ban has been in place, mostly, since. Because of that we've managed to slow down, though not stop the spread of global honeybee plagues into the U.S.
We've managed to have a few imports over the years though. Researchers have brought in bees resistant to some pests, and some honey bee pests have shown up from unknown or unintentional introductions.
Recently introduced international trade issues say that if two countries have the same honey bee pests and diseases there is no reason they can't exchange trade in bees. But if one country has all the problems of the other while the other country has some, but not all of these same problems, bees can travel one way, but not the other.
An example of this is that Canada can send bees into the U.S. because we have all the problems they do. However, we have African honey bees, a guest Canada does not want so we can't send bees into Canada. Sounds simple, right?
About that time the Australian and New Zealand beekeeping industries and their federal representatives petitioned the U.S. government to allow their bees into the U.S. Our investigators examined their bees and found that the U.S. had all of the problems of these two countries but we had some they didn't (notably, the varroa mite, and African bees) so we can't send bees back. It's a one-way street. This wasn't well accepted in the U.S., but laws are laws and a trade agreement was drawn up and about three years ago. Bees began heading our way.
But trade agreements are drawn up by lawyers, not biologists and there exist what I would consider to be bizarre trade restrictions in all of this. Once these Down Under bees were given the green light by the appropriate authorities, further interference by the U.S., that is, inspecting bees once they arrived, would be considered restraint of trade, a punishable offense. The law says the sending country has the responsibility of making sure their bees are free of any of the problems cited in the trade agreement. It's Fox Guarding the Chicken House logic, I think. But then, I'm not a trade expert.
There are advantages to this arrangement. Recall that Australia and the U.S. have opposite seasons, so fall there is early spring here and we can get bees shipped in long before we could normally raise them domestically. We could get lots of bees earlier for early pollination jobs, and beekeepers could now divide colonies even earlier in the spring and use Australian queens, which aren't available from U.S. producers that early. This seemed OK at first.
Enter Colony Collapse Disorder.
Suddenly having bees available early in the season became a necessity because of the oh-my-gosh (perceived) shortage of bees for the Mother of all pollination crops ... almonds, which bloom in February. Whether the almond industry and their allies helped push the powers that be toward the decision to allow Australian bees into the U.S. remains a topic of debate but it doesn't make much difference ... there it is.
How good are Australian bees? Beekeepers tell me it's a mixed bag, but then it's a mixed bag when it comes to U.S. bees, too. There are problems that border on severe, sometimes anyway, that don't show up with U.S. bees to the same degree ... a disease that kills the young called chalkbrood is one problem that hasn't gone away and hasn't been fixed by the senders.
Worse, these bees have not had 20 years of exposure to varroa mites like our bees have. How could they? They don't have varroa mites in Australia, so there's no selection process that looks for resistance to this vicious pest ... a resistance and a tolerance, I might add, that not only exists in the U.S., but is slowly becoming the dominant strain of bees available in the country. So we are bringing in genetic material that does not have any experience with varroa and mixing it with our tougher bees, diluting the selected genes and "dumbing down" those bees. One beekeeper said it seemed to be a short term solution, but a long term problem. It seems to me to be a misguided decision, but then, I'm not a trade expert.
About a year ago a different kind of honey bee was discovered in northern Australia, far from where exported bees are raised. The Asian honey bee, Apis cerana, was introduced, accidentally we're told, by fishing boats traveling back and forth from the islands of Indonesia where that bee is native, to northern Australia where it is not.
Remember that trading permit I mentioned awhile back? It states that if a country wants to send bees to the U.S. it must be country-free, and apiary-free of Apis cerana. Well, guess what?
Now you already know the problems with introduced species. English sparrows, purple loosestrife, Zebra mussels and Chestnut blight are among the thousands that have visited the U.S. and stayed, causing significant and permanent problems. Australia is keenly aware of what happened when the European rabbit came ashore. Fences notwithstanding, life is different there now because of that incident.
So nobody wants this bee and Australia is working to get rid of the infestation, way up there in the north, far away from where their real bees are.
But there's a deeper, darker problem associated with this smaller, less productive foreign bee. Two of the nastiest problems our bees now have originated with these trespassers. Varroa mites, the worst global honey bee scourge (and a major issue with CCD) came to us courtesy of Apis cerana, when European bees and Asian bees mixed in Asia. Plus, a relatively new problem that seems to be causing serious bee losses around the world is Nosema ceranae, an intestinal infection that can kill European bees in a hurry ... another issue with CCD.
We know where these pests came from. You'd think that would be enough, right? But wait, there's more!
These invaders still have one more trick up their collective sleeves they have still another mite infesting them that we don't have yet. Let me repeat that ... that we don't have yet.
Tropilaelaps clarae is a mite that normally only infests Asian honey bees in southeast Asia, but it's not fussy and attacks European honey bees with gusto and when they find them and are even more devastating than varroa mites. Way, way more. European bees have no resistance, no tolerance, and no chance when it comes to this mite. It's like Dutch Elm disease ... no survivors.
No, we don't want this new mite, and I'll bet the Australians don't want it. Not at all. But then, I'm not a trade expert.
Are bees from down under a biological blunder, now that they have this new bee?
They'll draw a new line, and the fox says it's fine, but the trade experts say ...
Stay tuned for the rest of this story ...
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