The plight of the bumblebee

By Emma Claire Sohn

“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.”

-Jacques Cousteau.

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An eloquent quotation from a man who knew his stuff, and a concept applicable across the organic landscape; birds will fly, fish will swim, the sun will rise and fall, but mankind’s ever evolving responsibility is to mesh its collective knowledge in an attempt to make some sense out of nature’s infinitely complex organization.

That said, there are few elements of nature that captivate the human psyche like the bumblebee. Their allotment of duties across the 10,000-strong population of each hive is awe-inspiring. But beyond challenging our scientific ambitions, bees tantalize our tummies as a vital part of the global food economy. Estimates suggest that food derived from bee pollination accounts for approximately 1/3 of all food consumed by humans, translating to about $15 billion of food related sales in the U.S. alone. Additionally, the bumblebee provides for many other species, including birds and small mammals – all key players delicately strung in their respective food networks and subject to entanglement at the slightest nudge.

A recently discovered affliction, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder by scientists, is decimating this insect’s population worldwide. The disease rages mercilessly from hive to hive, infecting a number of worker bees in a colony before they fly to another hive, thus spreading the illness into an epidemic. In some areas of the U.S., honeybee death tolls are estimated to be as high as 75 percent. The disease has ravaged European hives of late, most recently spreading to bee populations in England over the past few weeks.

Scientists are scrambling to find the source of the plight but have not yet reduced it to a single cause. Fingers are being pointed in all directions. Power lines, the cultivation methods of genetically modified crops, global warming, pesticides, habitat demolition and cell phone radiation – all the usual culprits blamed for any environmental ailment.

But the bumblebee is an addition uncommon to any listing of threatened fauna. For example, the endangered giant panda relies on bamboo as the main staple of its diet. When its habitat is destroyed and its sole food source is removed the species cannot survive. Additionally, as a mammal, the panda reproduces at a very slow rate and when their numbers are cut, they cannot immediately compensate for the increased death toll.

However, bees manufacture their own food, reproduce rapidly, and have done so for upwards of 65 million years. We can theorize and whittle the world down to a scientific theory and scribble partisan political lines across the issue, but at the end of the day we cannot identify one isolated human action, like habitat destruction, that is causing their decline.

The threatened extinction of the bumblebee is possibly the single greatest indicator that we have done something serious to make our global environment go awry. Argue, if you will, that climate change is something we’ve invented to win votes and Oscars. But the declining population of a species that has prospered since the Cretaceous period is not a figment of liberal conspiracy.

The effects of our actions on the natural world are unprecedented. With every new technological development an additional variable is added to a muddled mix and the likelihood of maintaining ecosystems worldwide is compromised.

Of course, scientists are befuddled as to the precise relation between our actions and the environment we share, but basic 3rd grade science indicates that as an additive variable, humans have had some effect on the world surrounding us. What are clear in the case of Colony Collapse Disorder are the ramifications of these actions. If bee populations continue to decrease at their present rate, it will stress an already strained global food supply with an insatiable appetite predicted to surpass nine billion people worldwide within the next 50 years. But the more profound implication is that a species which outlived even the great dinosaurs will not continue to survive under the conditions that humankind has encroached upon the natural world.