Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Disappearing Bees and Frogs and...

New research on bee colony collapses, which have accelerated and expanded over the past five years, suggests the culprit is indeed us, but in more complex ways than previously thought. If the researchers are right, this lends new significance and urgency to biodiversity conservation policy. Richard Black at the BBC:

...The latest twist in the plot comes from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, where scientists working in the lab have found a link between the health of hives and the diversity of plants on which bees forage for food.

Although the finding needs to be confirmed in field trials - which the team is hoping to instigate - the indication is that a diet of diverse pollen gives the bees the amino acids they need to synthesise their full panoply of chemical defences against pathogens.

A reasonable hypothesis, then, would be that if you put your bees to work pollinating one particular crop all summer and feed them on one particular food all winter, such as corn syrup - as is the practice in US commercial hives - they're going to fall like insects out of the sky when an unpleasant disease comes along.

Along with that goes the notion that if you lose a diversity of wild plants, you'll begin to impact wild bees. (The reverse may also apply, a little more intuitively.)

A recent study using records kept by amateur naturalists in the UK and the Netherlands suggests that the diversity of bees and flowers have been declining at similar rates for more than a century - a conclusion that could suggest the causes are intertwined.

If a monoculture diet was the only issue, perhaps it wouldn't matter; perhaps the insects would survive.

But add in a lack of genetic diversity among commercial stocks, the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals to which they may be somewhat sensitive, changes to the availability of water brought about by everything from man-made climate change to dams, the greater mix of pathogens that commercial bees must encounter as the hives travel from one workplace to the next, the declining extent of "natural" habitat for wild bees, and so on and so on and so on - and once again, "everything" becomes a reasonable suspect.

If this is right - and other branches of the natural world such as coral reef ecosystems are also under multi-frontal attack - it raises a pretty obvious problem: how do you combat "everything"?

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