You won’t notice it on the supermarket shelves or the tables of Jewish America this autumn, but both apples and honey are embattled, and by the same mysterious foe. I’m talking Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and if you think that name sounds like it’s describing a symptom more than a disease, you’re right. CCD, like the similarly vague Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Restless Leg Syndrome in humans, are all named for their symptoms because we don’t know their cause. All we know is that bees are disappearing, abandoning their hives and scattering to the winds, not making honey, not pollinating the flowers and trees, and those minute defectors could cost us far out of proportion with their size.
As an agricultural intern in 2007, I got a harrowing glimpse of a future without bees. For several years, the local Cooperative Extension had been growing a row of young apple trees on our farm. As an experiment, the trees were grown inside a zipped-up mesh row cover. The idea, I learned, was to see if organic apples could be grown more efficiently if pests couldn’t get access to them. I remember peering through the white mesh between weeding rows of beets. The fruitless trees were skeletons wound around with bind weed behind their “protective” curtain. Some bees that the experiment’s administrators had placed inside the mesh hadn’t survived, so empty hives dangled from the barren branches. The bees hadn’t pollinated the apple blossoms. There was no fruit to protect. It was a strange vista of death on a farm otherwise abundant with life. In the context of the debate about Colony Collapse Disorder, it was a terrifying sight.
Colony Collapse Disorder hits Jews on a particularly visceral level. Apples and honey, the very symbols of hope and plenty in our culture, are in danger, possibly by our own human hands. Imagine a Rosh Hashanah where those two symbolic foods weren’t an option. How would colony collapse disorder produce a future like that? The connection between bees and honey is obvious, but in fact, no bees means no apples either.
A short botany lesson for those of us who need one: many plants (apple blossoms included) are cross-pollinated. That means they need the pollen from one flower to be placed in another flower in order to be fertilized. Once the flower’s fertilized, a fruit grows where the flower was. Essentially, a fruit is a womb, a store of nutrition around the maturing seeds that protects and nourishes them until they’re ready to sprout. Pollen doesn’t move by itself, and flowers have developed a symbiotic relationship with certain flying insects, most notably bees, in order to transport their pollen from one flower to another.
Without bees and other flying insects to pollinate them, flowers don’t get fertilized, and flowers that don’t get fertilized never become fruit. The USDA estimates that one third of the human diet depends on flying insects, and of those insect, bees do 80% of the work. That’s why it’s important for us to remain engaged with an issue that isn’t going away. As long as bees are disappearing from their hives, neither apples nor honey are secure. You’d think that with a looming consequence like that, the USDA would have scratched out an answer as fast as possible, but in fact the government has been slow to respond.
The U.S. Bee population decline didn’t register nationwide until 2006. The government made emergency funds available, and the controversial 2008 US Farm Bill included a $20 million annual allocation for bee research. Some corporations have taken action as well, including Burt’s Bees and Haagen-Dazs. While researchers have ruled out some popular theories, like the idea that cell phones were disrupting bee flight patterns, they haven’t found definitive evidence for any of the other possible causes either.
CCD is attributed to a number of factors: pesticide exposure, invasive parasitic mites, an inadequate food supply and a new virus that targets bees’ immune systems. The virus, Israel acute paralysis virus (IAPV), is named for the country where it was discovered, which goes to show that the US is only one among many countries suffering from threats to the bee population. Mass desertions of hives have been reported widely in India, Brazil and parts of Europe since the 1990s, but these disappearances probably aren’t caused by the same thing. The only pathogen found in almost all samples from honey bee colonies with CCD in the U.S.A. was IAPV, which is often transmitted by the varroa mite, a tiny insect that feeds on bee blood. Even so, the co-existence of IAVP and CCD doesn’t prove that one causes the other.
Today, the number of bees in the US is still sufficient to pollinate the country’s crops, but the population is still declining, and solutions still seem far off. Today, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s best advice to apiarists and citizens alike is “to not use pesticides indiscriminately.” To city-dwelling readers, that doesn’t mean much, but folks with lawns and gardens have an extra reason to avoid using pesticides on their property, particularly at mid day, when bees are out foraging in their greatest numbers. Urbanites can plant a wide variety of local flowering plants, and be sure that they don’t plant seeds that are genetically engineered not to produce pollen. Depending on the outcome of the current research into CCD, it could mean the difference between a sweet new year and a strange new world.