The existential threat facing the honey bee, and what it means for us
An estimated 10 million beehives have been lost globally since 2014 to ‘colony collapse disorder’
Three hundred feet up in the air, dangling on a hand-made rope ladder, with a 25 foot bamboo pole held in one arm, Kulung tribesman Mauli Dhan fights off savage, pulsing swarms of giant Himalayan honey bees for one of the only things that links him to the world economy – “mad honey”.
Millions worldwide go to less lunatic lengths to capture the fruits of the labour of the world’s three trillion or so honey bees, but it is a tribute to the global value of the honey bee and its nectar that even here high in Nepal, just 10 miles or so from Mount Everest, humans risk life and limb for it.
No wonder, then, that so many in the US and Europe are in a sweat over a crisis sweeping the world’s honey bee populations. Out of a global stock of around 83m beehives in 2014, an estimated 10m hives have been lost, victim to “the disappearing disease”, the “spring dwindle”, or as scientists are now preferring to call it, “colony collapse disorder”.
The panic is not simply because no-one can agree on the cause of the collapse, nor because of fears that there might be a grave global shortage of honey, but because of the critical role honey bees play in pollinating much of the food we eat today.
Even on the issue of honey bees’ role in pollination there is fervent disagreement over whether panic is justified or not. First, most of our staple foods don’t rely on bees for pollination. Crops like wheat, rice, corn, soya, sorghum, rye, parley and oats are all wind pollinated. Vegetables like lettuce, beans and tomatoes are self-pollinators. But that leaves a large and delicious part of our diet still wholly or significantly dependent on bees and other insect pollinators – like almonds, raspberries, apples and pears, strawberries, melons, blueberries.
And much of this pollination is not down to honey bees at all. There are just seven species of honey bee in the world – the biggest and most savage of them being Mauli’s giant Himalayan honey bees – out of a total of around 20,000 bee species worldwide. And don’t forget the thousands of other butterflies and beetles and miscellaneous insects that also work assiduously as pollinators – or as our scientists trendily put it, to provide “ecosystem services”.
So why the tizz about “colony collapse disorder”, in particular in the US and Europe? I suppose the answer begins in 1907 with Nephi Miller, who stopped keeping bees for honey and instead began migratory beekeeping in the US, to address the mounting challenges faced by farmers across the country as local feral pollinators fell short of the task in hand.
The challenge was most acutely felt among the almond farmers in California’s Sacramento valley, where the blossoms on their 90 million almond trees are only receptive to pollination in a five-day window every spring. To this day, a large proportion of the US’s 1,300 migratory beekeepers descend on the Sacramento valley in support of the pollination process. Migrant honey bees increase almond yields from an expected 40 lbs per acre to an average of 2,400 lbs an acre. Be clear: millions of farmers worldwide rely very heavily on the “ecosystem services” of the humble honey bee, and their concern over “colony collapse disorder” is palpable.
Studies from Europe and Canada published last week in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, confess that the honey bee crisis is “a complex problem caused by multiple factors” – habitat loss, starvation, winter cold, Varroa mites (more commonly called vampire mites), and perhaps most perniciously, a family of pesticides based on the nicotine plant, called neonicotinoids. The EU has had a moratorium on the use of them since 2013, and a review due to be completed in November will doubtless call for a further ban.
Meanwhile, beekeepers in a very distant part of the world face a distinctly different honey bee challenge. In New Zealand, exporters of the highly prized and very expensive manuka honey – named after the manuka or tea tree blossoms their bees feast on every springtime – face a conundrum. They produce a grand total of 1,700 tonnes of manuka honey a year, yet worldwide sales of “manuka” honey amount to more than 10,000 tonnes. The UK alone boasts sales of 1,800 tonnes, though not a manuka tree is to be found there except perhaps in the occasional ornamental garden. In Hong Kong last year 56 samples of Manuka honey were tested, and 14 were found to be adulterated with syrup. Clearly, large numbers of entrepreneurial chemists are providing their own version of “ecosystem services” to generate a little opportunistic profit.
While New Zealand’s exporters make extraordinary claims for their manuka honey, none of them have been scientifically verified. But that cannot be said for Mauri’s “mad honey”, which until recently sold for six or more times the price of normal honey in the markets of Kathmandu. Apparently the Himalayan giant honey bees make different kinds of honey depending on the flowers in season – and the “mad honey” for which Mauri so endangers his life is only made when the bees are feasting every March and April on the pink, red and white blossoms of the rhododendron trees that grow on the north-facing hillsides of the nearby Hongu valley.
Toxins in the flowers create awesome psychotropic effects. As National Geographic writer Mark Synnott recently wrote: “Two or three teaspoons is usually the correct dose. After about an hour you are overcome with an urgent need to defecate, urinate and vomit. After the purge (says one honey hunter) you alternate between light and dark. You can see, and then you can’t see. You can’t move, but you are still completely lucid. The paralysis lasts a day or so.”
South Korean men, who believed mad honey improved sexual performance, were huge consumers – until a man died: “One has to be careful not to eat too much of it,” says the honey hunter.
Clearly, whatever the uncertain plight of the western honey bee in the beehives of Europe and the US, Himalayan giant honey bees still have lots of virility in them yet. But perhaps we should leave them to the Himalayan foothills. Perhaps we can do without his “ecosystem services” for the time being.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view