In a back alley a few blocks east of Cambie Street and few blocks north of 16th Avenue, I noticed what I took to be a fat little bumblebee in the middle of the lane, going around and around in a tight circle.
One way or another it was probably dying—from a parasite or a virus or just advancing decrepitude.
Fall is the time when bumblebee colonies naturally die off—all but the fertilized queens who will hibernate through the winter, emerge in the spring and give birth to a new bumblebee colony.
It’s a small event—the death of a single bumblebee—but it served to remind me of the larger ongoing unnatural die-off of honey bees and bumblebees around the world.
Two kinds of bees sharing one fate
Beside the fact honey bees can live through the winter tucked in their insulated hives, feeding off their stores of honey, bumbles are distinguished from their sweet-sounding cousins in other ways.
They’re cute and fuzzy, like little plush toys. They fly like zeppelins with a drunken crew. And they can sting all day but they happen to prefer not to—so there!
The biggest difference is that bumblebees weren’t chosen as the designated pollinators of human crops. Unlike honey bees, bumbles aren’t raised by the trillions to live in tenement bee housing to do the bidding of their human overlords.
For the most part, bumblebees are still wild and free. But all the same, they are still prodigious and essential pollinators of both wild plants and human crops.
Basically, human food production as it’s currently structured needs all the honey bees and bumblebees it can get. But it’s another curious fact of our relationship with nature that human food production is steadily helping to kill all the bees.
Killing the bees that lay the golden pollen
Honey bee populations are disappearing all over the world. The phenomenon isn’t new but in the last few years the scale of the losses—now called colony collapse disorder—has reached alarming proportions.
Worldwide loses of honey bees reached an estimated 34 percent in 2010. And populations dropped a further 23 percent last year.
As of 2013, it reportedly took 60 percent of the United State’s entire surviving honey bee population just to pollinate California’s almond crop, which accounts for 80 percent of the world’s US$4 billion almond market.
It now appears that the decimation of both honey bees and bumblebees is being caused by a perfect storm of viruses, parasites, and pesticides, made possible by thoughtless human meddling.
According to a widely reported study in the journal PLOS One, published in 2013, a “witch’s brew” of pesticides and fungicides appear to be weakening honey bees’ ability to resist infection by the parasite Nosema ceranae, cited as one of the causes of colony collapse disorder.
And bumblebees are likewise in big trouble. Four North American species have largely disappeared from their natural ranges and a fifth species may actually be extinct. Some 50 species are in decline and the decline is happening around the world.
Experts are partly blaming the unregulated nature of trade in bumblebees. This trade between the United States and Europe was banned in 1994 but not before it may have introduced a European parasitic fungus into the United States that U.S. bumblebee populations had no immunity to.
And if that wasn’t bad enough there is the Apocephalus borealis, the so-called “zombie fly”, which lays its eggs especially in bumblebees and paper wasps, though research from two years ago shows honey bees are also targeted.
It takes about a week for the developing Apocephalus borealis larvae to kill its host.
Bumblebees infected with zombie fly eggs are known as “zombees” and exhibit disoriented behavour such as senseless night flying and hive abandonment and what I observed the bumblebee in the alley doing—walking around in circles.
Mind you that’s not the only reason a bumblebee will walk around in circles. The can also get disoriented and plain tuckered out.
One notable detail of this bumblebee’s behavior is that when I moved my feet closer as I was taking photos, the bumble moved to specifically walk around the perimeter of my boot.
Around and around and around it went. Except that every so often it went under the space made between the heel and sole of the boot and thus traced a figure-eight path.
I have no idea what this exactly signified except that I remember reading that bumblebees back from foraging will perform a figure-eight dance to indicate to the rest of the colony that they found the pickings to be particularly good.
Bee seeing you!
In a back alley off Heather Street, there is a home with three letter-size colour printouts tacked to their backyard fence. Each is a slogan about the importance of bees. All of them together make the point that bees are important to human survival.
Bees are the proverbial canary in the coal mine—if they catch a cold, we will sneeze, or as one poster says, taking things to their logical extreme:
“If we die, we’re taking you with us”.
Environmentalists and advocates of sustainable and organic farming methods can churn out snappy slogans like this till they’re blue in the face. I’m not convinced they makes much difference.
The only thing big agro-businesses such as ADM and Cargill and Monsanto look at before they leap into a new farming practices and technologies, such as GMO crops and pesticides, appears to be their own short-term bottom line—nature and long-term consequences be damned, it would seem.
This is the attitude that appears to be helping to kill off honey bees and bumblebees and it is the same attitude that believes bees can be replaced with human technology if necessary.
Of course the drones aren’t ready yet and they will be terribly expensive and they won’t work a fraction as well as real bees but hey! Gotta do what we gotta do. No point laying blame. Just git 'er done!
And besides, the drones are only one option. We could always try putting bee DNA right into plants so they self-pollinate. That’s exactly what Monsanto is doing with their new “SoyBee’n”.
Come to think of it, were there any bees in the 1973 science-fiction film (soon-to-be a documentary) Soylent Green?