Books: no bees, no honey, no life

Everywhere, honeybee populations are dying out. No one knows why, but their decline threatens the way we live and eat. Robin McKie explores A World Without Bees.

A World Without Bees
Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum
Guardian Books, 2008

The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism
Jürgen Tautz
Springer, 2008

Every April, thousands of families gather in the fields of southern Sichuan in China. Each person clutches a bamboo stick with chicken feathers protruding from the end. Then sons, daughters, parents, grandmothers and grandfathers clamber into the blossom-laden branches of their farm’s pear trees and begin the delicate task of pollination.

It is, as Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain in A World Without Bees, a slow, laborious process. “The farmers must first collect pollen from the trees by scrubbing it off the anthers, the male part of the flowers, into a bowl. They let it dry for two days, before the whole family comes out with their homemade feather dusters, which are dipped in the pollen and applied to the flowers’ stigmas, or female parts.” The end result is a thriving harvest of pears, one that provides each family with an average of five tonnes of fruit a year.

But why bother? Why do the good people of Sichuan go through their treetop feather duster routines when they could rely, like the rest of the world, on the honeybee? This, after all, is “a creature perfectly engineered to perform the task, with a body designed to trap pollen and a work ethic that leaves no petal unturned”, as the authors neatly put it.

The answer to these questions is simple — and worrying. There are no honeybees in Sichuan. Overuse of pesticides eradicated the region’s population 20 years ago, leaving farmers to do their own fruit-tree pollination. And what is true for China today could soon become commonplace across the planet, for everywhere you look, honeybees are dying in vast numbers. In the United States, where Apis mellifera pollinates US$15 billion worth of crops a year, 800,000 hives were wiped out in 2007 and at least a further million suffered the same fate in 2008. Similarly in Britain, Europe, Canada, Asia and South America, hives are dying at an alarming rate.

The cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD), as this new wildlife affliction is termed, remains unclear. Beekeepers blame the introduction of nicotine-based pesticides such as imidacloprid, while scientists say a virus is probably responsible. However, neither group has gathered sufficient evidence to support their theories unequivocally.

What is not disputed is the impact of continued honeybee destruction. In their absence, human intervention, as practised in Sichuan, would be impossible. The sheer scale of the impending crisis threatens to be overwhelming. Yet without the pollinating presence of bees, cotton plantations, vegetable beds, orchards and fields of forage crops for cattle will wither and die. No bees equals no beef and no pork — or coffee or fruit (with the exception of bananas and pineapples) or cooking oils (apart from walnut or olive) or, naturally, honey. In such a future, breakfast will consist of a bowl of porridge made with water, and an egg. No fruit juice, no coffee and no milk — not even soya, please note.

And if you don’t believe the beekeeper or the authors of A World Without Bees, consider the words attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Hence the claim by Benjamin and McCallum that the disappearance of billions of the world’s honeybees suggests we are facing “an environmental crisis bigger than climate change”.

Now I have nothing against a bit of alarmism to spice up a book, but that is taking things too far. Yes, we have a problem on our hands, but given that our current wave of honeybee deaths is only a few years old, the authors are premature in writing off a creature that has survived for tens of millions of years.

On the other hand, the authors are correct in pinpointing the roots of the crisis. Pollination has become a global business worth more than $US40 billion and honeybees are treated more like machines than animals, particularly in the United States, where they are shipped round the nation in trucks like honey-making automata “that are poorly adapted to their living conditions and ill-equipped to fight off disease”.

So if you want a story that shows how our species is beginning to walk dangerously out of step with the rest of nature, then you need look no further than this highly enjoyable, polished, well-researched homage to the honeybee.

For its part, Jürgen Tautz’s The Buzz About Bees is more concerned with the minutiae of the honeybee’s life, although it manages to be accessible and entertaining as well. As Tautz, a professor of behavioural physiology at Germany’s Wurzburg University, points out, colonies show an eerie collective intelligence and should be treated as highly sensitive entities.

This point often is not understood by those who keep bee colonies and treat them like “poor migrant workers”, transporting them to climates to which they are not adapted while keeping them in cramped conditions in which disease spreads rapidly. As Tautz concludes: “Is it any wonder that colonies die?”

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009