An alarming, potentially disastrous agricultural mystery has unfolded quietly over the past few months. Honeybees – the United States chief pollinator – have been leaving their hives in droves, never to return. Beekeepers across the country have declared up to 70% losses in their colonies, and there is currently no clear answer as to why.
Honeybees – a rare example of a non-native species which has proven itself useful – account for up to 100% of the pollination of some crops. Almonds, for example, are pollinated entirely by honeybees – and California, where the vast majority of the US almond crop is grown, has seen 30-60% honeybee losses. 90% of both the apple and blueberry crops in the United States are pollinated by honeybees. A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees pollinate $14 billion worth of US crops each year.
“Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food,” claims Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
Researchers have forwarded a laundry list of theories for the colony die-offs. Theories include pesticide use which has aggregated to muddle bees’ ability to navigate home, habitat loss, funguses, and being overstressed by longer propagating seasons and shorter off-seasons. If it is in fact being overworked and underappreciated which is driving bees to cast off the bondage of their biology and bolt to unknown frontiers, more power to them – most American workers can relate to the impulse.
Researchers are unable to provide evidence for their theories, however, as no one has thus far been able to find the corpses of any run-away bees. Of course, given its eminence in the recent public dialogue, climate change has been blamed, as well.
While these severe colony losses may have nothing to do with climate change – and while there may be no clear solution in the policy sector – U.S. policy-makers would do well to pay attention to the economic impact of the loss of just one species. The economics of biodiversity is becoming more and more of a geopolitical and diplomatic issue, and much of this discussion is being driven by fears of climate change. Germany has put climate change and biodiversity at the forefront of its agenda in its bid for Presidency of the G8.
A study put forth by Germany estimates that 40% of world trade hinges on biodiversity or biological product, and the Stern Report estimates that between 5% and 20% of world GDP could be lost from to squandered biodiversity by way of climate change.
With the United States on the outside of this issue, and the rest of the world aligning to mitigate the impact of CO2 emissions on future generations (and our own), we may soon be facing and even less-friendly international trade environment – especially if our reckless consumption habits are costing other G8 countries 20% of their GDP.