Fruitless Fall

If Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder: A Literature Review, my recent guest post by Kyle Bailey, just whet your appetite for information about CCD, you should check out the book I happened upon this weekend at my local library: Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis by Rowan Jacobsen. The causes of CCD are still not known, but Rowan does a great job of summarizing the usual suspects as well as proving more information that could be expected in a conversational tone. The overall feel of Fruitless Fall is similar to Diane Ackerman’s Natural History books, but with an overlay of urgency.

The first few chapters provide information: 1 explanation of why bees are so important to agriculture, 2 facinating descriptions of bee life, bee biology, and beekeeping in general, and 3 the first incidences of CCD, including first hand descriptions from beekeepers.

Chapter 4, Whodunit, is where the story starts to get really interesting. Jacobsen carefully explains the dead ends of the investigation (call phones, Bt crops, the rapture, etc) and tells us why none of the various viruses, bacteria, and parasites that afflict bees are likely culprits.

The discussion of Bt crops is surprisingly lucid (if not a tad overdrawn) and contains more than a little foreshadowing for the next chapter: “Why spray crops with a pesticide that washes into the soil and groundwater when you can simply have the plants manufacture it for themselves? Organic farmers have used Bt for years as a natural insecticide. So I can understand Monsanto’s thinking. Then again, I can understand Dr. Frankenstein’s belief that it might be useful to reanimate the dead; it’s in the practice that things get messy.” Jacobsen points out that “lots of CCD cases have been reported in states  [and countries] with no GM crops” and that USDA studies have shown Bt pollen to be completely safe.

Chapter 5, Slow Poison, brings us to a hypothesis that pesticides are the problem, reducing the bees’ ability to defend themselves against disease. Individual pesticides are tested singly for lethality and applied at rates below lethal levels, but they aren’t tested in the combinations that bees experience in the fields. They also aren’t tested long term at non-lethal levels. Low levels of various pesticides, including neonicotinoids (which are a relatively safe synthetic version of nicotine, an organic pesticide) cause nervous system problems in bees. France’s answer has been to ban certain pesticides, but their bees continue to die while bees exposed to the same pesticide (Gaucho) in Argentina are doing just fine.

So, what do we do? In later chapters, Jacobsen offers a few solutions, including a huge switch in farming practices and importing Russian bees, but I’m not satisfied. From bees to babies, it seems obvious that we need to reduce dependance on pesticides in farming. The problem is, we can’t afford it. There is a reason why organic produce costs more. We must find gentle ways to keep yields high.

To me, Jacobsen’s paragraphs on Bt crops and on pesticides combine to a somewhat obvious potential solution – genetic engineering. One of the nice things about GE is that you can target where in the plant a compound (such as Bt or nicotine) is produced. Using the right promoter, we can express a compound in just the leaves or just the roots, whatever part needs to be protected from pests. While some compounds will be transported around the plant, we can realistically produce a GE plant that has very little of the compound in the pollen. With the pesticide safely locked away in the plant parts that need it, the bees can come and go, harvesting pollen without being affected. Instead of demanding a ban on GE, we should demand more intelligent use of the technology.

Of course, genetic engineering alone won’t solve CCD, but neither will banning pesticides. We need a completely fresh look at agriculture. We need a system that rewards farmers for good practices to improve the situation for bees and for the rest of us. For example, if a farmer rotates crops and uses Bt crops properly to reduce insecticide use, allows some weeds to grow to reduce herbicides use, plants borders and hedgerows of wildflowers, uses local bee hives instead of shipping them in, etc – the food can’t be labeled “organic” even though a huge difference has been made for local ecosystems, for the bees, and for the health of the consumer. The farmer won’t be compensated for these efforts which are more time consuming than 100% conventional farming. Without compensation, why bother? It’s far easier to rely on chemicals, and we all need to make a living.

Image of a bee heading toward an almond blossom by pho-tog on flickr, book cover from Jacobsen’s website.