Apr 18, 2007

Vanishing Bee Colonies,Doomsday Scenarios and Sunspots

Albert Einstein once said : “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Apocalyptic for sure. We haven't reached that point yet, but some worrisome indicators suggest dramatic drops in the bee population of the US are likely to impact crop production. This is not a small agricultural sector that is being impacted either. In the US bees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops each year.

The disappearing bee phenomena isn't restricted to the US. In Europe countries are experiencing varying degrees of what investigators describe as "colony collapse disorder" (or CCD). Countries effected include Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. However the most serious losses have occurred in the US. On the West Coast keepers have seen bee population losses in the 30 to 60 percent range. On the East Coast and Texas it gets as high as 70%. These are catastrophic drops for an industry that considers around a 20% population decline to be an off-season norm.

There are a number of different theories about why this is happening. After looking at a cross-section of scientific opinion I tend toward the view that the decline in the bee population is being triggered by a variety of factors, rather than a single overriding cause.

There is evidence that the immune system of bees has been adversely effected by modern agricultural practices. These range from use of insecticides to the controlled raising of bees in order to have an army of pollinators ready to service crops on schedule. Some researchers take the view that genetically modified crops are a contributing factor in bee population decline. Stress figures into it too, given that increased pressure is being placed on colonies as their habitat is squeezed each year due to urban development. Parasites are also an issue. The varroa mite introduced from Asia has proved to be problematic.

The decline in the health of the colonies can be demonstrated by research data. You know the problem has reached crisis levels when a guy like Dennis van Englesdorp with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture uses an Aids analogy in an attempt to underscore the seriousness of the threat to bee populations.

Researchers have discovered multiple infections co-existing in some colonies, many of which were also infected with fungi, an indicator that the bees' immune systems were seriously compromised. This compromised immune function may be related to genetically modified crops and scientists are currently working to try to determine any possible links. When you look at the stats though, on the surface there does seem to be a generalized cause and effect pattern. In the US, which has experienced the most severe bee losses, 40% of the corn is now a GM insect-resistant strain. By contrast in Germany we are only talking about 0.06%, mostly grown in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg regions.

A number of earlier studies investigated whether or not GM crops were having a negative impact on bees. One such study took place at the University of Jenna from 2001 to 2004. The researchers used a GM maize variant named "BT corn" that includes a gene from a soil bacterium in order to make it insect-proof. At first the study seemed entirely positive. No discernible negative effects were detected in the bees from the BT corn. Then researchers discovered that when the bees were attacked by a parasite, the portion of the colony exposed to the BT corn had a much lower ability to fight off infection and showed much more rapid levels of decline.

There is a second set of factors though that raises concerns about quantum-mechanical effects related to magnetic fields and electromagnetic waves. The majority of losses have been occurring as a result of bees being unable to navigate back to their hives. Bees have been expiring singly, in a seemingly disoriented state far from the hive and this can't simply be attributed to immune system issues.

There are two possible causes. One being our high-tech gadgetry, particularly mobile phone technology. The other cause odd though it may seem, relates to so-called "sunspots" - the effect of solar activity.

At first glance it seems a bit far-fetched to make a connection between the life of bees and mobile phones. However research suggests there may indeed be something to this theory. German research has determined that bees showed a marked change of behavior when in the vicinity of power lines, and a study conducted at Landau University found that bees avoided returning to the hive when mobile phones were placed nearby.

A study by the mathematician Barbara Shipman, provides one of the more fascinating ... one might even say 'esoteric' theories. A critical aspect of bee activity hinges obviously upon finding pollen sources and returning to the hive. According to Ms Shipman this routine is facilitated by the dance the bees perform. She indicates that the dance is influenced by factors such as the polarization of the light of the sun and variations in the earth's magnetic field.

She goes further though and suggests bees are capable of identifying quarks. I think it's a leap to suggest that bees can 'perceive' the quantum field or even use it as a type of frame of reference. My hunch is that their activity is pretty much instinctual, based upon their highly specialized circuitry. Questions about whether or not they can perceive quarks seems almost a moot point, especially since there is no way of proving it.

Where the sunspot theory does hold up is that bees appear to be very sensitive to energy fluctuations. One study exposed a colony to bursts from a high-intensity magnetic field and concluded that the bees' reactions revealed a high sensitivity to nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR. This occurs when an electromagnetic wave alters the orientation of the nuclei of atoms.

Some scientists take the view that the next solar maximum may be one of the most intense ever. Mausumi Dikpati, an astronomer with the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts a solar maximum for 2012, a phenomena that last occurred in 1958. The sunspot generates intense magnetism that can be felt on the earth. Dikpati even believes that it is possible electronics will be effected, for example GPS and mobile phone technology. Since solar cycle 24 began in 2007 according to Mausumi's estimate, it's possible that the behavior of bees is already being effected to some degree.

The dramatic declines in the bee population appear to be due to a combination of factors. Insecticides, crop engineering, shrinking habitats and parasites have impacted the overall health and immune system of bees. The other factor contributing to bee decline relates most probably to side-effects of technology and solar activity.