Have you heard the rumors about killer bees escaping Africa, swarming the world over, and terrorizing summer picnics for mankind young and old? Well, I can’t say what Spire’s official opinion is on killer bees, but I can warn you about a very real threat to the average European honeybee — Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
CCD describes the strange and sudden disappearance of honeybees from their hives that honeybee farmers across North America and Europe began to notice in 2006. Though beekeepers can expect some natural hive loss over a normal winter period, CCD losses are different. First, they occur at a much higher rate, such that some American honeybee farmers reported losses between 30-90% in 2006. By 2008 an estimated ⅓ of the United States’ bee population had vanished under CCD-like conditions. Second, when a hive collapses under normal conditions, bee bodies and evidence of a parasite or mold can often be found. With CCD, a hive that was buzzing and busy one day can be found completely deserted with no signs of bees the day after.
As honeybees are a vital link in the food production chain (pollinating one out of every three bites of food we eat), we at Spire are extremely concerned about CCD and its decimation of the European honeybee population. To raise awareness about CCD, we hosted a film showing of the 2009 documentary ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ at the University of Oslo.
The film follows American beekeeper David Hackenberg in his quest to understand what is happening to his bees and how to protect them. Through Hackenberg’s journey, we meet researchers who believe the cause of CCD is a new type of systemic pesticides that large-scale monoculture farms began using in the mid-1990s. Instead of being sprayed onto plants to fight insects topically, systemic pesticides are absorbed by the plant when applied to the leaves or seeds. These chemicals then fight unwanted insects from the inside out and are impossible to wash off of one’s food. Scientists hypothesize that honeybees absorb a significant amount of these toxic pesticides when they collect pollen. The chemical can disorient them such that they cannot perform their hive duties completely. It is possible that the pesticide also is passed on to the bee larva.
Upon learning of the ties between systemic pesticides and CCD, Hackenberg visits France to see how his European counterparts have addressed the CCD epidemic. He finds that European beekeepers have protested the use of systemic pesticides and succeeded in having these chemicals banned.
The key difference between the American and European approaches to dealing with CCD is this: the precautionary principle. When European governments are faced with an uncertainty about how chemicals affect nature, food, and humans, they take a precautionary stance and ban the substance until better information is available. In the USA, however, farmers can continue using the chemicals until the pesticides are undoubtedly proven lethal.
Spire’s Food Committee aims to uphold the precautionary principle in global agricultural policy. We take an active stance against the use of systemic pesticides both here in Norway and in the global South where industrial agriculture techniques are highly influential. In short, we must protect our bees, our food, and our planet. Limiting the use of systemic pesticides is a concrete action we know will lead to safer food pollination and food security. Let’s work together to safeguard the honeybee and leave the killer bee phenomenon to the mad scientists.
PS: If you enjoyed learning about CCD and are interested in global food justice work, please join us for our next film showing at the University of Oslo: ‘Black Gold,’ a documentary about the relationship between cash crop market volatility and local economic security for Ethiopian coffee growers.
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Written by Elyse Leonard, member of Spire’s Food Committee.