Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Plight of the Bumblebee

To play the popular family game Jenga, players lay wooden blocks in rows of three. Each subsequent row is laid down on top of the one below it at a 90-degree angle, until all the wooden blocks are in place. Once the tower of blocks is complete, players each take a turn removing one of the blocks from the centre of the pile, and placing it on top. The goal of the game is to avoid being the one to make the tower fall.

It's a simple game, but it also serves as an effective metaphor for the game we are playing with the environment. Thanks to human development, the chemical pollution of land, sea and air, over fishing, global warming, genetic engineering, and a myriad of other unsustainable human activities, we are removing species from the stack, one bird, one tree, one insect at a time. Like the game Jenga, we will never know exactly what piece is critical to the integrity of our ecosystem until its removal triggers the collapse. Tragically for us, unlike the game Jenga, if our ecosystem does collapse, we won’t be able to stack the blocks back up and start over again.

Those who don't think this is a reasonable metaphor for our interdependence with the environment should consider the recent plight of the lowly honey bee. In recent months, billions of bees have vanished from across the U.S. One estimate puts the losses at between 50 and 90 percent. While the total number of losses in Canada has yet to be determined, beekeepers in British Columbia and Ontario's Niagara Region are also reporting losses of up to 90 percent.

What's even more alarming is that nobody seems to know why the bees are disappearing. In the U.S. a team of experts led by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Montana and Penn State, are studying the mystery of the disappearing bees, and have dubbed the phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder"or CCD.

"We believe that some form of stress may be suppressing the immune systems of bees, ultimately contributing to CCD," said Caird E. Rexroad of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Investigators are exploring a range of possibilities, including pesticides, viruses, poor nutrition and even that great 21st Century pandemic - stress.

One theory is that bees are being driven off from the hive and are dying of exhaustion or cold before they can return. A German study has linked cell phone radiation to the disappearance of millions of bees. The study showed that bees refused to return to hives when cell phones were placed in the vicinity. Whatever the cause, bees are apparently dying before they reach maturity, without any noticeable sign of disease.

Anyone who has run screaming from a bee in a schoolyard or family picnic, or is forced to carry an epi pen as a precaution against the potentially fatal allergic reaction to a bee sting, might be tempted to say, "Who cares?"

The answer is that we all should care very much. In our game of Jenga, bees might very well be that block that topples the tower of our existence.

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left," wrote Albert Einstein, arguably one of humanity's greatest scientific minds. "No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Einstein wasn't exaggerating. It's estimated that bees are responsible for pollinating plants that provide as much as 30 percent of our food. In the US, that translates into $14 billion worth of seeds and crops. In addition, 75 percent of flowering plants require pollinators, such as bees, to bear fruit. Many of these flowering plants produce biological materials that are used in the production of fuel and medicines.

Until scientists can provide us with a definitive explanation as to why bees are disappearing, we should all do those things that make ecological sense anyway. Don't use pesticides, reduce the use of other household chemicals and respect the other species in our tower of Jenga, before that tower falls.



Canadian Honey Council

For more of Einstein's magical, insightful and sometimes frightening wisdom, visit www.quotationspage.com, and search for Albert Einstein.


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