A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation's fruits and vegetables.
Which is like, yeah, big whoop, it's just bees, right? Except that:
The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees.
Michael O'Malley is a "human capital consultant" (whatever that is) but has also been a beekeeper for the past ten years. Here's what he's learned about how bees organize themselves and manage risk.
Take, for example, their approach toward the "too-big-to-fail" risk our financial sector famously took on. Honeybees have a failsafe preventive for that. It's: "Don't get too big." Hives grow through successive divestures or spin-offs: They swarm. When a colony gets too large, it becomes operationally unwieldy and grossly inefficient and the hive splits. Eventually, risk is spread across many hives and revenue sources in contrast to relying on one big, vulnerable "super-hive" for sustenance.
Here's another lesson by analogy: No queen bee is under pressure for quarterly pollen and nectar targets. The hive is only beholden to the long term. Indeed, beehives appear to underperform at times because they could collect more. But they are not designed to maximize current returns; they are designed to prevent cycles of feast and famine (a death sentence in the natural world). They concentrate their foraging on the most lucrative patches but keep an exploratory force in the field that will ensure future revenue sources when the current ones run dry. This exploratory force (call it an R&D expenditure) increases as conditions worsen.
One of the vehicles involved in a deadly car crash in Minnesota today was a truck carrying bees. First responders to the scene faced what was described as a "big black cloud" of bees. Firefighters were spraying the trucks with hoses to subdue the bees because they don't fly in the rain (the bees, not the trucks). I can only imagine a few things worse than this, one of which is an accident involving a truck full of sharks.
The truck that crashed carried upwards of 17 million bees; each of the trucks carried 700 hives, with about 25,000 bees per hive, said Dale Bauer of Bauer Honey Inc. of Fertile, Minn. The bees were being shipped to North Dakota after spending the winter in Mississippi. There was no immediate estimate of how many of the bees escaped.
NYC's Board of Health has lifted the ban on keeping bees in the city.
The unanimous vote amends the health code to allow residents to keep hives of Apis mellifera, the common, nonaggressive honeybee. Beekeepers will be required to register with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and to adhere to appropriate practices. That means they must be able to control bee swarms and ensure that the hives do not interfere with pedestrians or neighbors.
Ten dollars says my wife utters the following words to me tonight: "we should raise some bees on the roof!"
Meanwhile, individual beekeeping operations have been damaged, some beyond repair because of this malady. Others have been able to recover. The overall picture is, however, not quite as bleak as the press and the blogosphere might lead you to imagine. Colony numbers in the U.S. show the resiliency of American beekeepers.
Flowers of a given species all produce nectar at about the same time each day, as this increases the chances of cross-pollination. The trick works because pollinators, which in most cases means the honeybee, concentrate foraging on a particular species into a narrow time-window. In effect the honeybee has a daily diary that can include as many as nine appointments -- say, 10:00 a.m., lilac; 11:30 a.m., peonies; and so on. The bees' time-keeping is accurate to about 20 minutes.
In the gut contents we found spores of nosema, single-celled fungal parasites that can cause bee dysentery. The spore counts in these and in subsequent samples, however, were not high enough to explain the losses. Molecular analysis of Hackenberg's bees, performed by the other of us (Cox-Foster), also revealed surprising levels of viral infections of various known types. But no single pathogen found in the insects could explain the scale of the disappearance.
In case you weren't aware, and I wasn't for a long time, the foundation in common usage by beekeepers results in much larger bees than what you would find in a natural hive. I've measured sections of natural worker brood comb that are 4.6mm in diameter. This 4.6mm comb was drawn by a hive of commercial Carniolans and this 4.7mm comb was drawn on the first try by a package of commercial Carniolans. What most beekeepers use for worker brood is foundation that is 5.4mm in diameter. If you translate that into three dimensions, instead of one, that produces a bee that is about half again as large as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems.
The cell size in commercially available combs has been increased over the years to increase the honey yield. (thx, brian)
In an article for Scientific American, two scientists who are working on the causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD) say that they and other researchers have made some progress in determining what's killing all of those bees.
The growing consensus among researchers is that multiple factors such as poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides can interact to weaken colonies and make them susceptible to a virus-mediated collapse. In the case of our experiments in greenhouses, the stress of being confined to a relatively small space could have been enough to make colonies succumb to IAPV and die with CCD-like symptoms.
It's like AIDS for bees...the lowered immunity doesn't kill directly but makes the bees more susceptible to other illness. One the techniques researchers used in investigating CDD is metagenomics. Instead of singling out an organism for analysis, they essentially mixed together a bunch of genetic material found in the bees (including any bacteria, virii, parasites, etc.) and sliced it up into small pieces that were individually deciphered. They went through those pieces one by one and assigned them to known organisms until they ran across something unusual.
The CSI-style investigation greatly expanded our general knowledge of honeybees. First, it showed that all samples (CCD and healthy) had eight different bacteria that had been described in two previous studies from other parts of the world. These findings strongly suggest that those bacteria may be symbionts, perhaps serving an essential role in bee biology such as aiding in digestion. We also found two nosema species, two other fungi and several bee viruses. But one bee virus stood out, as it had never been identified in the U.S.: the Israeli acute paralysis virus, or IAPV.
Scientists are still trying to figure out what's causing CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a plague that's killing off millions of bee across the United States. Among the possible culprits are a virus, increased vulnerability to disease due to breeding, overwork (hives of bees are trucked around the country for months to pollinate crops), increased exposure to all kinds of insecticides, and perhaps even all of the above.
As the swift expansion of feral honeybees across the Americas shows, they are not especially picky about their habitat; most anything outside of parking lot or vast monoculture will do. And for native bees, habitat could be restored to suit the needs of whichever species are exceptionally good pollinators of local crops. Bumblebees, for instance, are the best pollinators of Maine blueberries, whereas blue orchard bees work well for California almonds.
Hirsh's idea is reminiscent of Michael Pollan's proposals for decreasing the present monoculture in American agriculture outlined in his recent books.
For Berkshire bees, quitting time is about 5 pm. New York City bees, they work harder and longer. And as you can see, we're here before 7 am, and these bees are already starting to work, whereas the country bees won't be opening the doors till about 9 am. And these city bees will still be hard at work at 7 tonight! Maybe it's because it's warmer here or maybe it's the city lights. Whatever it is, they definitely work longer hours.
But in New York, bees are reprobate and illegal. They appear in the City Health Code's Section 161.01, along with an enormous list of animals "naturally inclined to do harm or capable of inflicting harm," lumped in with the truly ferocious/impractical-polar bear, cougar, alligator, whale-and a menagerie of the truly obscure. Actively encouraged by almost every other self-respecting cultural capital, the common honey bee, according to Health Department logic, must be banished along with binturongs, sea kraits, coatimundis, numbats and zorilles.
Graves has been at this awhile...a NY Times article called him the "Johnny Appleseed of New York beedom" in 1999.
All right, but why beekeeping? "After you do it, everything else in life is calm," said Mr. Solomon, the investment banker. "Let me tell you, 40,000 bees will teach you the power of concentration and patience."
The NY Times Magazine is out with its annual Year in Ideas issue. 2007 was the year of green -- green energy, green manufacturing, and even a green Nobel Prize for Al Gore -- and environmentalism featured heavily on the Times' list. But I found some of the other items on the list more interesting.
Ambiguity Promotes Liking. Sometimes the more you learn about a person or a situation, the more likely you are to be disappointed:
Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. "And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles," Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers "the outdoors" refers to nude beaches. And "once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that," Norton says.
I'm an optimistic pessimist by nature; I believe everything in my life will eventually average out for the better but I assume the worst of individual situations for the reasons proposed in the article above. That way, when I assume something isn't going to work out, I'm rarely disappointed.
The best method, called "mirror bees," entails sending a group of small satellites equipped with mirrors 30 to 100 feet wide into space to "swarm" around an asteroid and trail it, Vasile explains. The mirrors would be tilted to reflect sunlight onto the asteroid, vaporizing one spot and releasing a stream of gases that would slowly move it off course. Vasile says this method is especially appealing because it could be scaled easily: 25 to 5,000 satellites could be used, depending on the size of the rock.
What an elegant and easily implemented solution. But Armageddon and Deep Impact would have been a whole lot less entertaining using Dr. Vasile's approach.
The Cat-Lady Conundrum. More than 60 million Americans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that most people get from their cats. And it's not exactly harmless:
Jaroslav Flegr, an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, is looking into it. He has spent years studying Toxo's impact on human behavior. (He found, for example, that people infected with Toxo have slower reflexes and are 2.5 times as likely to get into car accidents.)
This may explain why I can't seem to get past "Easy" on Guitar Hero.
The Honeycomb Vase is actually made by bees. One unintended consequence of having a vase made out of beeswax is that flowers last longer in it:
Libertiny is convinced that flowers last longer in them, because beeswax contains propolis, an antibacterial agent that protects against biological decay. "We found out by accident," he explains. "We had a bouquet, which was too big for the beeswax vase, so we put half of the flowers in a glass vase. We noticed the difference after a week or so.
[Officer Tommy Ray] made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.
It leans off to one side, rocks to and fro as if gathering strength and then, presto, tips itself back into a "standing" position as if by magic. It doesn't have a hidden counterweight inside that helps it perform this trick, like an inflatable punching-bag doll that uses ballast to bob upright after you whack it. No, the Gomboc is something new: the world's first self-righting object.
Update: The Gomboc is available for sale but it doesn't come cheap. The €80 version is basically a paperweight with a Gomboc shape carved out of it. It's €1000+ for a real Gomboc, which is ridiculous. (thx, nick)
The basic idea of beekeeping is still the same as it was in the 1800s. The Langstroth hive is named after the scientist who first discovered what we called bee space-three eighths of an inch. That's their travel space, they won't junk it up with honey or anything. Beekeepers take advantage of that, and that's how the hives work.
Langstroth's crucial insight -- "I could scarcely refrain from shouting 'Eureka!' in the open streets," he wrote of the moment of revelation -- was the concept of "bee space." He realized that while honeybees will seal up passageways that are either too large or too small, they will leave open passages that are just the right size to allow a bee to pass through comfortably. Langstroth determined that if frames were placed at this "bee-space" interval of three-eighths of an inch, bees would build honeycomb that could be lifted from the hive, rather than, as was the practice up to that point, sliced or hacked out of it. He patented L. L. Langstroth's Movable Comb Hive in 1852. Today's version consists of a number of rectangular boxes-the number is supposed to grow during the season-open at the top and at the bottom. Each box is equipped with inner lips from which frames can be hung, like folders in a filing drawer, and each frame comes with special tabs to preserve bee space.
So says Elizabeth Kolbert in an article about colony-collapse disorder, a bee disease that's wreaking havoc on beehives and food production around the US. Bee space! I'm unsure whether similar research has been done to determine the proper "human space", although the placement of houses in a suburb, tables in a restaurant, blankets at the beach, or social space in elevators might provide some clues as to the proper measurement.