Honeybees “are the glue that holds our agricultural system together”, wrote journalist Hannah Nordhaus in her 2011 book The Beekeeper’s Lament. And now that glue seems to be failing.

Around 2006, commercial beekeepers began noticing something disturbing: their honeybees were disappearing. Scientists coined an appropriately apocalyptic term for the mystery malady: Colony-Collapse Disorder (CCD). (Incidentally, we have reported on CCD in previous newsletters). Years later, honeybees are still dying on a scale rarely seen before, and the reasons remain mysterious. Scientists are working hard to figure out what’s bugging the bees.
Agricultural pesticides are an obvious suspect – specifically a popular new class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which seem to affect bees and other insects even at what should be safe doses. These chemicals are used widely on crops as well as in home gardens, meaning endless chances of exposure for any insect that alights on the treated plants, thereby posing real threats to the viability of pollinators. There is growing evidence that neonicotinoids can have dangerous effects, especially in conjunction with other pathogens. Studies have shown that these chemicals attack the nervous system of bees, interfering with their flying and navigation abilities, without killing them immediately. Other suspects are bee-killing pests like the aptly named Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that has ravaged honeybee colonies since the 1980s. It burrows into the brood cells that host baby bees. Bacterial and viral diseases can also be the cause of the problem (such as American Foul Brood (AFB), which kills developing bees).
The loss of honeybees would leave the planet poorer and hungrier, but what’s really scary is the fear that bees may be a sign of what’s to come, a symbol that something is deeply wrong with the world around us. The simple fact is that beekeepers live in countries that are becoming inhospitable to honeybees. To survive, bees need forage, which means flowers and wild spaces. Industrialised agricultural systems have conspired against that, transforming countrysides into vast stretches of crop monocultures – factory fields that are little more than a desert for honeybees starved of pollen and nectar.
As valuable as honeybees are, the food system wouldn’t collapse without them. But our dinner plates would be far less colourful, not to mention far less nutritious. The backbone of the world’s diet – grains like corn, wheat and rice – is self-pollinating. Although many crops are only partially dependent on bee pollination, others, like the almond, cannot get by without it. For all the recent attention on the commercial honeybee, wild bees are in far worse shape. Unlike the honeybee, the bumblebee has no human caretakers. This is what happens when one species – that would be us – becomes so widespread and so dominant that it crowds out almost everything else (Time, vol 182, no 8, 19 August 2013).