Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Queen and The Plague: Colony Collapse Disorder

This essay was written in March 2007 for The Skeleton News and reprinted in my zine Power of the Impotent. In the spring of 2010, 33% of American honeybees were found dead in their hives; Colony Collapse Disorder has been on the rise since it was first recognized in late 2006. Its cause remains unknown, and while many have raised concerns about the relationship between CCD and genetically modified organisms, little research has addressed the subject. 

There can be no doubting that they understand each other; and indeed it were surely impossible for a republic so considerable, wherein the labors are so varied and so marvelously combined, to subsist amid the silence and spiritual isolation of so many thousand creatures. They must be able, therefore, to give expression to thoughts and feelings, by means either of a phonetic vocabulary or more probably some kind of tactile language or magnetic intuition, corresponding perhaps to senses and properties of matter wholly unknown to ourselves. And such intuition well might lodge in the mysterious antennae – containing, in the case of the workers, according to Cheshire’s calculation, twelve thousand tactile hairs and five thousand “smell-hollows,” wherewith they probe and fathom the darkness. For the mutual understanding of the bees is not confined to their habitual labors; the extraordinary also has a name and place in their language; as is proved by the manner in which news, good or bad, normal or supernatural, will at once be spread in the hive; the loss or return of the mother, for instance, the entrance of an enemy, the intrusion of a strange queen, the approach of a band of marauders, the discovery of treasure, etc. And so characteristic is their attitude, so essentially different their murmur at each of these special events, that the experienced apiarist can without difficulty tell what is troubling the crowd that moves distractedly to and fro in the shadow. 

                                          —Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, 1901 

     This spring, honeybee-keepers opening their hives after the winter hibernation found them empty. A troubling epidemic is attacking the honeybees of North America. Colony Collapse Disorder [CCD] has swept through at least twenty-two states and parts of Canada, leaving up to 80% of local hives dead in its path. While colony illnesses are not uncommon, and something similar to CCD has been observed in past years, the current wave of the epidemic is the most devastating blow the honeybee has received. The bees themselves seem aware of the gravity of this threat, and exhibit unusual behavior while ill, and in their actions toward infected colonies. 
     Bees are social insects, each with a precise role, and it is chilling to observe the profound alterations made on these roles by the disorder. In an ordinary infected colony, bees are found dead directly outside the hive, carried out by the living. A healthy colony immediately takes action to invade a diseased one, stealing their resources or evicting the residing colony from their hive. Moths, wasps, and other insects will take advantage of an ailing hive with similar invasions. In a hive with CCD, the dead bees are mysteriously absent, indicating that they have flown away from the hive to die, and invasion by any species is rare. This is particularly astonishing as the infected hives exhibit a complete absence of adult bees, and are being maintained by young adults who would not otherwise be suited for the workforce or hive defense. Other insects seem aware that something dangerous is lurking within these disordered hives, and are refraining from their usual invasions. 
     The role of the queen is exclusively reproductive; she mates regularly with the male drones of her hive to generate workers, drones, and new queens, until she dies or is killed by the worker bees to be replaced by one of her daughters. She is genetically tied to all the colony, and the pheromones by which bees recognize and communicate with one another can be traced to her. In a healthy colony, the queen leaves the hive only for her mating flights. In a CCD hive, she is uncharacteristically present outside the hive, in a desperate, futile attempt to communicate with her missing colony. 
     Malnutrition, one of the few disorders known to so drastically alter the social structure of honeybees, was immediately dismissed as the cause of CCD. Devastated hives are found with their food stores intact, and living bees are reluctant to eat the food available to them. This may indicate that the disorder inhibits their desire to eat, or could suggest some acknowledged dangers within the food itself. 
     Researchers are have explored many potential causes of CCD but have found nothing conclusive. Varroa and Acarapis woodi mites, parasites which have devastated bee colonies in recent years by introducing viruses to the hive, are under investigation. Antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and other apicultural and agricultural toxins are also being researched, but are extremely difficult to trace as most commercial colonies are moved between states frequently for pollination and are exposed to many unknown substances. 
     Compelling research by scientists at Penn State University suggests the possibility of an immunosuppressive virus (carried by mites or plants), similar to HIV, which would account for the similarities between CCD symptoms and those of malnutrition. The emergence of such a virus would be indicative of the danger of human intervention in natural processes and raise many new concerns around the genetic modification of plants. Genetic engineering is most commonly used to splice pesticides and antibiotics directly into the genes of plants, which gives microorganisms a great advantage. 
     In the 1940s, geneticist Barbara McClintock discovered that genes could reposition themselves on strands of DNA, producing changes in the appearance of an organism. Her research with maize chromosomes in the 40s and 50s was the first step toward modern genetics, and eventually the production of genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. Her findings helped Joshua Ledenberg, a decade later, discover the ability of microbes to mutate, advantageously re-sequencing their DNA to produce immunity against antibiotics. While antibiotics, pesticides and the like have made important contributions to public health, their misuse has been of great advantage to microbes. When in the early 1960s it seemed malaria might be completely defeated, overuse of the pesticide DDT allowed pesticide-resistant mosquitoes to appear throughout the world, and fifteen years later malaria incidence was 2.5 times higher. Agricultural misuse carries the greatest responsibility: 70% of antibiotics are used for non-therapeutic purposes, such as accelerated livestock growth. Also accountable are medical misdiagnoses and overeager prescribing (i.e. prescribing antibiotics to treat viral infections) and patient error (not finishing and improperly disposing of prescriptions). These factors have led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and diseases from ear infections to TB, which seemed easily treatable at one time, are increasingly difficult to combat. And while vaccines hold much promise in protection against viruses they are relatively ineffective if less than 80% of a population is immunized. New or frequently mutating viruses including HIV have shown us that microbes have distinct evolutionary advantages over humans, and our tinkerings help them at least as much as they help us. 
     Monoculture, or the elimination of agricultural diversity in favor of thousand-acre cash crop growth of single plant species, is the driving force behind our “need” for GMOs containing genetically implanted pesticides and antibiotics. Interestingly enough, crops embedded with pesticides and antibiotics don’t reduce the need for additional application of these materials, thus exponentially multiplying their use. And the very process by which we modify genes adds to the trouble: in the creation of GMOs, antibiotic resistant marker genes are combined with “genes of interest,” facilitating the acceptance of the modified genes. These genes are harmless within the plant, but provide microbes with an opportunity for mutation. The FDA is currently “encouraging” biotech companies to phase out the use of antibiotic resistant genes, but with little pressure or fiscal incentive. 
     Improper use of antibiotics, pesticides, and vaccines is the primary factor in the emergence of new or brilliantly mutated microorganisms that have devastated human populations in recent decades; perhaps a previously unknown microorganism is responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder. Research into the drawbacks of GMOs is burdened by the economic power wielded by the companies that produce them, and much important work has been cut in its tracks. If CCD continues to appear throughout the country it will be impossible for agribusiness to ignore this line of questioning. Bee mortality is not only the concern of apiculturists: apples, strawberries, cucumbers, almonds, pumpkins, pears, raspberries, and many other crops are almost completely dependent on honeybees for pollination, and bees add over $14 billion to annual agricultural profits. 
     Researching and preventing CCD is necessary for the survival of both honeybees and agribusiness. An epidemic of this scale must be stopped expediently if we do not want to witness the total devastation of an important insect species. We cannot stop this bee epidemic, or future ones like it, if we are unwilling to stand up to biotech corporations for the right to understand the potential hazards of genetically modified crops. A complete and unhindered line of questioning is necessary to determine the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder before ruling out GMOs as a factor. If we are thorough in our explorations, we might answer some vital questions about the risks of pesticide use, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms, which pose threats as great to ourselves as they do to the honeybees. 

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