By David L. Brown
When I was a child in post-World War II America we had no videogames or even television, and like many others at that time I collected butterflies. Many times I would go forth with my net into a bright summer morning eagerly seeking new additions to my growing display of lepidoptera, the order of insects that also includes moths and skippers.
In those days butterflies were in profuse abundance. Every flowering bush was surrounded by a colorful cloud of wings, each puddle of water ringed by thirsty insects, every field of blooming clover teeming with busy lives.
It is a matter of serious concern to me that the picture is quite different today. Where once the sight of dancing clouds of butterflies was a common delight, today a glimpse of the occasional wandering Monarch or Tiger Swallowtail is a rare event.
I have also noticed a dearth of honeybees, those busy little workers that flit from flower to flower spreading pollen and gathering the nectar from which to make their honey. In my youth, wherever flowers were blooming there was always the buzzing hum of busy bees at work. We harvested their honey for our table each year. Today, even though my backyard is filled with flowering plants only an occasional bee is seen.
I have often wondered where those insects have gone. Now the current issue of New Scientist magazine brings even more distressing news, at least for the bees. The story reports how late last year beekeepers in Florida suddenly found that entire colonies of bees were vanishing almost overnight. Soon similar mysterious disappearances were being reported in 22 Southern states.
The article quotes May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who said: “Bustling honeybee colonies, tens of thousands strong, were emptying in only a matter of days.”
According to Danny Weaver, president of the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), up to half of the nation’s approximately 2000 commercial beekeepers have reported losses that fit the model of the syndrome, which has been termed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD).
Insect scientists are puzzled by the rapid rate of bee extinction, in which entire hives are suddenly found to be empty. One commercial beekeeper reported that the bees from 11,000 of his 13,000 hives have mysteriously gone missing. Another reported the total loss of virtually all of his 10,000 colonies.
According to Maryann Frazier, an apiculture (beekeeping) extension worker at Penn State University quoted on the ABF website, “This has become a highly significant yet poorly understood problem that threatens the pollination industry and the production of commercial honey in the United States.”
Researchers are puzzled, for there seems to be no easy explanation for the sudden outbreak of CCD. Investigators are eyeing a variety of suspects, including pesticides and viral, bacterial and fungal infection. So far there is no answer, and as spring arrives beekeepers in the northern part of the country will soon know whether CCD has spread to their cold climate areas as well as across the South.
The disappearance of bees is more serious than just the loss of honey, because it also threatens production of fruits and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination. A surprising number of crops depend on bee pollinators, including apples, almonds, blueberries, cantaloupe, cucumbers, squash and watermelon to name just a few.
According to one estimate, up to one-third of the human diet is affected directly or indirectly by bee pollination. The annual value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is approximately $9 billion, and bees play an important role around the world.
The New Scientist article also quoted Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota, St. Paul: “The bees are really at the base of a lot of agriculture and if they go tumbling down, what’s going to happen on top of that?”
Washington is beginning to notice the problem. The House Agriculture Committee scheduled a hearing on CCD with the ABF’s Danny Weaver and others from the industry scheduled to testify.
Weaver told New Scientist that he plans to ask the Department of Agriculture to double its funding for the nation’s four bee research labs. He noted that bee science gets just $8 million of the $93 billion the government spends each year on agricultural research.
Meanwhile, what about all those butterflies that are gone missing? That seems to be a problem worldwide, even in the faraway South Pacific. A recent press release from the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust asks: “What’s happening to New Zealand’s butterflies?” The organization’s Jacqui Knight says that people contact her each day to inquire about the shortage of butterflies.
“Insects spread pollen, kill pests, clear away waste and improve our soil,” Knight says. “They do a lot of work in Nature’s background that we don’t imagine.”
The growing awareness of the problem could lead to some solutions. Although small and easily overlooked, insects are a wonderful and valuable part of our world. Someday soon I hope I can once again gaze with delight upon clouds of butterflies and listen to the busy hum of hard-working bees.