Has Anyone Seen The Bees?

“Have you noticed? The christophines have not been very abundant this year,” my wife remarked sometime back last September. 

No, in fact I had not really noticed. However, what I did notice a little later on was that the little Tulsi plants — from which I normally choose the best one to replace the old mother plant every year — did not make their usual appearance. It was the same with several other plants in the flower bed too. Something was obviously amiss.

My Eureka moment came one morning the following week whilst I was picking some christophines for lunch. “No honeybees!” I exclaimed to the wife. Normally at that time of the year, the christophine vines should be buzzing with these black and yellow miracles of nature. But that morning, I could not find a single one of our little friends on the cream-coloured flowers. Their absence meant that less pollination was taking place, thus explaining a reduction in fruit production. At least partly!

Pollination

At its simplest, pollination involves the transfer of the male pollen from the anther to the female stigma of the flower. Provided the pollen is viable and is compatible with the female portion of the flower, fertilization will occur, which in turn will lead to the formation of a fruit. The process is largely aided and abetted by insects that meander from flower to flower in their search for nectar to nourish their larvae. The honeybee is a principal agent.

In fact honeybees account for 90 percent of all insect pollination, and they are responsible for the pollination of something like 30 percent of all agricultural crops. In just one outing, a honeybee can visit as many as 1,000 flowers. Without honeybee pollination, therefore, we would end up with a significant decrease in the reproduction of plants, fruits and vegetables. 

Indeed so important are these insects to humanity that it led Albert Einstein to declare that “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

But who/what is responsible for the decline in the number of honeybees.

Beepocalypse: USA/EU

Worldwide, there is a phenomenon called sudden colony-collapse disorder (CCD). This is also known as the Mary Celeste Syndrome — a reference to the mysterious abandonment by the entire crew of a British-American ship by that name in mid-Atlantic in 1872. Mysterious because, at the time the weather was fine and the ship was in good condition.

In the USA, CCD colony-collapse disorder was first noticed in 2006 by commercial beekeepers who found that adult bees were suddenly leaving the hive, only to end up dead somewhere else, thus leading to a very fast loss of the colony. Since 2006, some 10m hives have been lost due to CCD. At a replacement cost of USD 200 per hive, that amounts to a massive loss of USD 2bn. As important as this figure is, it pales into insignificance compared to the billions lost through the consequent decrease in pollination capacity and the consequent drop in the production of food crops.

In Europe also, a similar pattern has been observed. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the UK has lost some 30 percent of its total of 274k hives between 2007 and 2008. Around the same period, Italy lost around 50 percent of its 1092k hives and the loss in other European countries was in the range of 30-50 percent. 

Causes

Since the bees go away to die, there are no bee bodies to examine. Consequently scientists are not able to determine the exact cause of death. Thus any conclusion they are able to draw is by inference only.

As far as is known, there is no single cause for CCD. Several types of viral infestation, a parasite called Varroa destructor, a bacterial disease called the European foulbrood and the irresponsible use of pesticides by farmers are thought to be the main culprits. Even proper use of some pesticides leads to a weakening of the bee’s immune system, and eventually its death.

It is also thought GM crops with their pest control characteristics and even the ubiquitous cellular phone may have a weakening effect on the bee’s immune system. In Mauritius, the wholesale burning of sugar cane during harvest time may also bear some responsibility for the reduction in the number of bees.

Mauritius

Figures gleaned from various sources suggest that there are some 400 beekeepers in Mauritius and Rodrigues, with a total of 2,000 hives. Annually, these keepers produce around 75 tons of honey and without drastic changes to our agricultural practice and environment, there is little prospect for any substantial increase in production.

Deforestation, cyclones and droughts as well as the burning of sugar cane leading to decreases in the quantity of nectar-producing flowers are major factors that restrict our capacity to increase the number of hives/honey production capacity. Like many other countries we also have a major problem with the indiscriminate use of pesticides, herbicides and all manner of other “cides!” Why, these have even found their way to our common gardens of late. There is just no hiding place for the poor little beasties!

As far as disease is concerned, figures are indeed sparse. The only thing we do know for sure from official sources is that the Varroa has been responsible for a reduction of 10 percent of the bee colonies in the country. Compared to the USA/EU, therefore, it would seem that we have been extremely lucky, but this may not be the complete picture. For instance, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that we have been victim of CCD to a certain (unknown) degree. As for the effect of other diseases, we just do not know for sure, but they must surely have had a certain incidence on bee population.

We must also not forget that bees aren’t the only insect species that have declined in numbers; man hasn’t yet invented a pesticide that is selective in killing bees only. However in the absence of empirical research, we can only go by intuition, observation and anecdotal evidence. For example, the decline in the butterfly population is evident because of their size and colour, whereas the bumblebee seems to have disappeared altogether from the environment. The variation in lesser noticeable species is obviously less evident.

But since all insects are involved in pollination, any reduction in their numbers de facto leads to a reduction in fruition. Last year vegetable growers in the North were reporting a 20 percent decrease in their production. Even if all of this decrease in production may not be attributable to insect numbers, it would be surprising if a significant percentage was not.

Humans

As well as affecting the insect population, pesticides are known to cause disease in humans too. These may vary from mild allergy to life-threatening cancer. It has further been established for many years that insecticides also adversely affect animal/human reproductive process. In particular they have been found to be responsible for the phenomenal rise in breast cancer in women of all ages.

Fifty years ago only post-menopausal women were advised to self-examine themselves for any lumps in their breasts, because they were deemed to be more at risk due to hormonal changes. However for the past couple of decades, younger and younger women are falling victim to this disease which has now attained epidemic proportion. Walk down any sizeable street in any village/town and we will find at least a dozen cases.

The Good Old Days

There was a time when bee colonies proliferated in the meules that used to be a common feature of our agricultural landscape. From planting to harvest, sugar was produced by what we now call the bio method. Instead of tons of artificial fertilizers, natural cow/goat manure was used to feed the young canes. No one had ever heard of herbicides; thus weeding was done manually.

Instead of the current practice of mass burning for easier harvest, mostly women labour was employed to effect depaillage of the sugar cane. This involved the stripping of the straw from the cane thus rendering it ready for cutting before being loaded onto lorries/trams/ox carts for transportation to the milling factories. Consequently, after harvest the straw was left in situ to rot in the field and fertilize and enrich the soil naturally. Every seven years, at the end of its life cycle, the cane was uprooted and coquelicots planted on the land. Once mature and full of beans, these were interred interline to make the soil even richer still before replanting cane boutures.

It is evident that we can’t quite get back to those halcyon days. But even as a layman, I know that we can certainly go for a mix of organic/inorganic farming — by replacing artificial fertilizers with compost, herbicides and insecticides particularly the lethal neonicotinoids by biological alternatives. As for the wild bees, they can be replaced by domesticated ones and, in the absence of the meules, the hives can be placed in strategic places. And why not increase nectar production by planting hedgerows with flowering plants. One thing we can do straightaway is abandon this mad, bad, sad policy that forces people — under threat of prosecution — to destroy all the plants growing on their morcellement plots, instead of leaving them alone to produce more wild flowers.

The Challenge

I am sure a multidisciplinary group of “experts” can think of many other ways of increasing flower production and insect protection. That is the challenge if we want to continue enjoying our mangoes in their different guises (achard, salad, chutney, ripe), our delicious pumpkin with roti and the hundreds of home grown and imported food crops pollinated by our friend the bee and its insect allies.

Otherwise old Albert’s prophecy may well come to pass one day. Hopefully in the very distant future?

* Published in print edition on 3 June 2016

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