Sunday, April 14, 2013

Colony Collapse Made Easy

Two studies have finally linked the Colony Collapse Disorder of certain bees to a specific group of pesticides.

and here:

Neonicotinoids! Such a tidy scientific name. It suggests that the problem has been quantified and isolated, and so the solution is near at hand. That’s was my gut reaction at least, reading the two New York Times articles. Don’t need to worry about the bees anymore.

They’ll—who? The government? Scientists?—will do what they always do when faced with this problem. Just a tweak to the formula of the pesticide. Or introduce an agent that will immunize the hives against the pesticide. Behold the easy miracles of SCIENCE. They’ll do like they do in bad Star Trek: techno-babble the solution just before catastrophe. Easy-Peesy. [Run your own experiment. Scour the web for people recommending that we can replace the at-risk bees with cloned bees or robot bees.]

But of course it is not so simple. The authors of the studies, the farmers and, thankfully, the journalists of the news articles all point out that there are many other likely reasons for bee collapse:

• fewer flowers due to land development
• pesticide-resistant mites
• fungicides that inhibit insect maturation
• pathogens or viruses

Here is the telling quote from the Times article on March 29th, by Michael Wines:

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

“Where do you start,” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”

That is a much more complex and difficult question than how to deal with one group of pesticides. And don’t get me wrong, neonicitinoids must be addressed based on the threat they pose. But we cannot simply order a solution to that one culprit and feel good about saving the bees, while ignoring the dangers and costs to bees inherent in the entire agricultural system that will remain. We can either alter the entropic makeup of that system, root and branch, or continue to impose modifications that keep the system’s efficiencies in place—until the next, compounded problem forces the choice on us yet again.