James Fischer -- Beehives have been "crashing", as we beekeepers say. The syndrome is called "Colony Collapse Disorder", (CCD), a precise-sounding pseudo-scientific term that translates into plain English as the "Huuuuh?" sound made by "Scooby-Doo" in the 1970s cartoons. There's been no clear diagnosis, so there's no "cure" yet. All we can do is watch hives die. Its depressing. No one is sure how many hives have crashed from CCD so far, but exact numbers don't matter. If even 1% of cows in multiple cattle herds were dropping dead for reasons unknown to ranchers and their veterinarians, everyone from the National Guard to the Boy Scouts would have been mobilized. Bees just don't get no respect. But there are rumors of a formal scientific paper slowly slogging its way to publication in a science journal that must remain nameless. Lots of rumors. From people that aren't in the habit of rumor-mongering. We've all kept our mouths shut about it. Science journals demand "exclusive first-publication rights". If reports appear elsewhere first, they refuse to publish the paper at all, and the paper may lose the aura of respectable Science (with a capital "S") that comes from publication in a major journal. Yes, it is high-handed, yes, it is unfair, but it is what scientists have to tolerate. Nearly everyone get raises, bonuses, tenure, and promotions based in large part on such "published results".
So, what's the paper say? Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it? I can say that the term "pathogen" has appeared frequently in the informal comments of the research teams, and the more specific term "virus" has been used often. But that's not as interesting as what is said about the source of the pathogen. It apparently has been traced to "two points of entry" into the USA. (I'm not revealing anything not already "in the press". Someone else printed some quotes they shouldn't have. The cat got partially out of the bag.) But how could a bee virus travel to North America? The easy, perhaps only, way would be to travel in live bees. How could bees cross oceans? Well, they flew. No, not on their own, bees can't fly that far. They were flown in as air freight. Don't tell Samuel L. Jackson. He got all worked up over mere snakes on a plane.
In 2004, World Trade Organization rules forced the USA to abandon its long-standing prohibition on imports of bees without special permits and a quarantine period. Under the WTO, bees suddenly became "goods", no different from TVs or steel girders. So, beekeepers can buy bees from the other side of the planet. Why would anyone do that? In a word, "almonds". Almond trees bloom in February in California, and that's too early for any but the strongest hives. Some hives die every year from a variety of causes, most of them all the other invasive pests and diseases that have arrived from overseas in the past 20 years. So, bees from South of the equator on the other side of the planet, where it is summer, are bought to replace hives that have died, or to expand hive numbers to keep up with the ever-increasing acreage planted with almond trees. We beekeepers tried to get some form of port-of-entry inspections written into the import regulations when they were introduced, pointing to the UK and European Union, where this was already done without any outcry from the WTO. We were ignored.
Bees were apparently not worthy of any consideration in trade negotiations. Did I mention that bees don't get no respect? When you travel internationally, you need 9 hands -- one hand to hold your boarding pass and passport, one for your shoes, one for your baggie with 3 ounces of shampoo and toothpaste, one for your cellphone, one for your laptop, one for your jacket, one for your belt, one for your coins and keys, and one to salute the flag as you approach the x-ray scanner. But bees? They glide effortlessly by the inspectors that inspect everything else from Japanese cars to Belgian Waffles. (Drug smugglers, arms smugglers, terrorists, and spies take note -- you can likely smuggle anything inside a bee shipment.) The WTO rules dictate that the exporter, the guy selling the bees, "certifies" that the shipment is free of diseases and pests. It is no surprise that not a single bee shipment has ever been delayed or canceled due to diseases or pests. The exporter does not get paid unless he ships bees. The importer in the US also only gets paid if the bees ship. CCD is exactly the sort of "worst-case scenario" predicted by those of us who lobbied for port-of-entry inspections for live bee imports back in 2002. We were ignored. I think I've mentioned this before, bees don't get no respect. So, a tiny number of people seeking personal profit appear to have introduced yet another honey bee disease into the USA, but they won't even be asked to pay to clean up their mess. In fact, CCD "outbreaks" make them even more money. Some beekeepers who have suffered losses from CCD bought new "packages" of bees from overseas to replace their dead hives.
So, what's the exact cause of CCD? Can't say. That would be telling. But it doesn't seem to be The Rapture, pesticides, cell phones, genetically-modified crops, sunspots, Bat Boy, or bees of the "Russian" breed being hybridized by Russian mad scientists to "fly back to Russia". It seems pretty clear that CCD is a result of greed. Greed amplified by WTO regulations that treat live bees as nothing more than another "commodity", rather than live animals that can carry foreign, invasive, virulent diseases and pests into the Western hemisphere. But let's wait for a genuine paper to be published in a science journal. Without publication in a journal, we won't have Science with a capital "S". We have to play by the WTO's rules, and their rules state that "biosanitary concerns must be science based", and the rules also state that the burden of proof is upon us. So, there's reason for hope. But you didn't hear it from me, OK?
James Fischer is the 3rd beekeeper from the left in most group photos. He writes articles now and then, and speaks here and there, in futile attempts to drag beekeeping into at least the 19th, if not the 21st Century.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.