Colony Collapse Disorder and the survival mechanism Darwin missed.

bees disappear colony collapse disorderI caught a snippet of a fascinating interview on NPR earlier today: they were talking about bees, Colony Collapse Disorder, and the inherent problems with the current pesticide toxicity testing thresholds.  Got me thinking how there’s a whole ‘nother level past what Darwin was talking about.  Let me back up, get you a running start to this.

Colony Collapse Disorder was the term given when there was a startling drop in honeybee populations in the USA, a phenomenon that really caught the public’s attention about 5 or 6 years ago.  At the time, I was hearing folks cite the work of two French scientists, Colin and Bonmatin, who were questioning the use of the cluster of neurotoxins known as neonicotinoids on crops.

Apparently, quite a number of people with a strong anti-pesticide stance also called on Scottish scientist David Goulson (the one I heard speaking today) who has been studying the decline of bumblebees (the big fuzzy ones kids draw) and asked him if they could say he was against these pesticides.

Being a scientist, he thought “hmmm. I’d better look into this and develop a reasoned response that I can give these people.” So he did.

Turns out there are some fundament flaws in the way pesticides are tested for toxicity to bees, because yes, farmers are deeply aware of the need for beneficial insects and would like to keep them, so manufacturers do test at what level a given poison will kill bees (and other friends).   For one thing, the tests take place in highly controlled situations: the bees live in hive A and sup from the flowers at station B, placed conveniently about 4 feet away.  In real life, bees roam miles (literally! miles!) from their hives each day in search of food.

While the bee in the controlled situation gets a dose of the pesticide being studied and only the pesticide being studied, bees out and about are getting food from a range of sources, and may be bumping into crops contaminated with any of a dozen pollutants.  Turns out, with these neonicotinoids, they may be bumping into other things too.  One of its key effects is to make the bees poor orienteers.

While the bees eating the tainted food in the field labs weren’t showing a high proclivity for getting lost, when the territory to be navigated shifted from the size of a canoe to the size of Manhattan, they suddenly started failing to come home 3x more often than their pollutant free fellows. This means that even at the low dose levels that have been shown to not be fatal to individual bees, the collective set of bees is still at risk.

While somewhere between most and all of the bees native to North America are loners, the honey bees are distinctly not.  Beyond the fields full of homesick “dizzy bees”, scientists in the US, Scotland, and France are all seeing a significant reduction each year in the number of queens produced by hives in areas contaminated by these pesticides (perhaps in part due to the lost members of the hive.)

Fewer new queens means fewer new hives: the replacement rate of the collective supersedes the survival rate of the individual in importance.  It’s here that I jump to thinking further about my group theory of evolution.  I know Darwin (and Wallace) talked about the survival of the fittest (apt-est or best suited, not the most muscular) at the level of the individual, but the honeybees are underscoring for me the importance of the survival of the community.

Picture a tribe of prehistoric humans, asleep atop a mesa in the American southwest.  It’s 2 am, the old people have long since gone to bed, but the teenagers are up chatting away under the twinkling sky.  A young child stirs and then begins to sleepwalk in the direction of the cliff edge.  The teens are up to save the day and steer the child back to camp.

Now it’s quarter to 5 am.  The young people have finally dropped off to sleep.  Some nocturnal animal is sneaking around the fringes of the group, looking for a late meal before hunkering down to nap for the day.  Luckily, Grandma and Grandpa are up!  Their shoo-ing of the beast rouses the fittest (strongest) members of camp, who jump up and grab their spears.

Could any of them have survived the night alone?  Their odds are dicey at best.  The people who know how to live together, however, have increased each other’s survival rates significantly.  Too old to hunt or farm turns out to still be useful, worth the work of feeding and caring for.  Our emotional bonds become the mechanisms that tie us together and encourage us to work together.

For me, this is why gay people wanting to adopt children seems like a natural idea.  What better back-up plan could a village have than the occasional set of adults vastly less likely to have kids of their own?  Mom and Dad dead after the big mammoth hunt?  It’s okay- Uncle Jake and Uncle Leon are available to take in their nieces and nephews.

It’s not about any one of us surviving something.  We are collective animals.  Our communities have to learn that each of us brings something to the whole. Collectively, we need that other bee dancing out the path to the new patch of food.  Them getting lost is a canary in the coalmine for all of us.


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3 responses to “Colony Collapse Disorder and the survival mechanism Darwin missed.

  1. Swarm season for the honey bees is under full swing in many parts of the country. There have been many swarm reports in my area. Many beekeepers try to control swarming for various reasons such as decreased honey production, and I try to control swarming because a swarm of bees can be a terrifying sight to the nearby neighbors even though they are docile at that time. The various methods I’ve tried are not 100% effective which makes me think that the bees themselves know something is wrong and are swarming in an effort to save themselves as we humans can’t get our collective heads out of our collective butts and figure out what to do for them.

  2. My understanding is that the modern bee is, in effect, factory bred so there is little genetic diversity. When an infection hits, it spreads fast and the bee populations crash because they are not diverse enough to survive. I would assume that there are many contributing factors.

  3. A lot of bees that come in the packages indeed have less genetic diversity as their mother, the queen, usually are not allowed to go into the sky and breed with the various drones that are able to find her.

    That’s why a lot of beekeepers are into catching swarms. More genetic diversity there, and if they swarm, it’s usually a stronger hive.

    As for the contributing factors, too bad there are many. I am beginning to think of the bees as our canary in the coalmine. Since our food supply is directly tied to them, we would be up the creek if we don’t do more to help them.

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