If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.
Albert Einstein never said that, but it sounds so frighteningly good that writers have gleefully put the words into the famous physicists mouth and repeated them for years.
In recent months, you couldnt Google "honey bee" without stumbling over the quote and its erroneous attribution, as the United States has come to grips with Colony Collapse Disorder, a honey bee affliction that is as mysterious and ominous as it sounds.
As it happens, the quotes apocalyptic overtones arent far off the mark. Thats because bees are one of natures most important pollinators, and put simply our food depends on them.
Of about 240,000 flowering plants in North America, three quarters require the pollination of a bee, bird, bat or other animal or insect in order to bear fruit. More than 130 food crops just about everything but grains are flowering plants. Its been estimated that one of every three foods in the American diet is reliant on pollination by bees.
One way to think about it: Without bees, McDonalds wouldnt have much to sing about.
The Big Mac would be nothing more than two buns no pickles, lettuce and onion. No sesame seeds. And youd be lucky to get even one all-beef patty and some cheese, since cattle would be starving for alfalfa in the absence of pollinators. (Special sauce? Your guess is as good as mine.)
Without bees, the U.S. farm economy would be out $15 billion. Without bees, the price of just about every food left on grocery store shelves would go up. And while no one measures the value of flavor, without bees, you can bet your meals would be less tasty. (You can forget fruits, nuts and berries. Forget watermelon and squash. Forget Chocolate.)
Which is why no one whos been paying attention to bees has been laughing lately.
A National Academy of Sciences report last fall documented a crisis among North American pollinators especially honey bees and native bumblebees. Some species may be going extinct before theyre even described by scientists. Pesticides, destruction of habitat and the inadvertent importation of foreign diseases and parasites are all suspects in that particular mass murder mystery.
And that report came out before any one had heard about Colony Collapse Disorder. Like characters in some kind of Bizarro Bruce Springsteen song, worker bees across the country have been leaving their hives and just never returning home. In dozens of states, beekeepers watched as many as 90% of their bees up and disappear. Now, a year later, there's worry that it's all starting again.
Scientists gave it a label. But beyond some genetic sleuthing that suggests an Australian virus might play a role, no one knows whats happening. Or why. Or how much worse it might be next year.
Still laughing? Consider this.
Congress already boosted spending on bee research four-fold to $7.4 million. And the Senate approved spending $86.5 million over the next five years to get to the bottom of Colony Collapse Disorder.
All told, thats nearly 100 million of your tax dollars.
And thats nothing to laugh at.
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