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Yet another environmental warning sign of the overwhelming influence of human activity on the global ecosystem? A mysterious phenomenon is wiping out honey bee colonies in the United States, Brazil, Canada, India, and parts of Europe. The loss of nature's best known pollinator could have a significant effect on agriculture and the food supply. In the United States, populations of the honey bee (genus Apis)— North America's most important pollinator—are in decline. According to a US Department of Agriculture census, the number of commercially managed colonies has declined from approximately 6 million in the 1940s to less than 2.4 million in 2002 (USDA 2002). During the first 6 months of this year, beekeepers became increasingly alarmed, reporting the loss of nearly one-fourth of their colonies—about 5 times the normal winter loss.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honey bee is responsible for 80% of that pollination. Honey bees play an integral role in the world food supply, and are essential for pollination worldwide of a wide range of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, forage crops, some field crops, and other specialty crops (Johnson 2007). While not all scientists foresee a food supply crisis, noting that large-scale die-offs have happened before, the recent sharp decline in honey bee colonies seems particularly alarming.

Scientists are struggling to understand what is responsible for losses of entire colonies. While the precise causes of the syndrome, generally referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), remains a poorly understood phenomenon, theories include environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, unknown pathogens (i.e., disease), mites, pesticides, genetically modified crops, beekeeping practices (such as the use of antibiotics or long-distance transportation of beehives) and electromagnetic fields emitted by cellular telephones and other manmade devices. It is unknown whether any single factor, or a combination of factors, is responsible for the sudden and near total mortality affecting colonies. Likewise, it is unclear whether CCD is a genuinely new phenomenon: Similar large-scale die-offs of honey bee populations have been reported as long ago as the late 19th century.

To better understand the causes of CCD and with the hope of eventually identifying strategies to prevent further losses, university scientists, the US Department of Agriculture, agriculture and beekeeping organizations, and representatives from the departments of agriculture in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia founded the CCD Working Group in the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) based at The Pennsylvania State University. The MAAREC is a regional group focused on addressing the pest management crisis facing the beekeeping industry in the US Mid-Atlantic region. A similar mandate to understand the threat to honey bees was launched in the United Kingdom by the National Bee Unit (www.nationalbeeunit.com) acting on behalf of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Welsh Assembly Government.

A National Research Council report released in October 2006 on the status of pollinators, and particularly the plight of honey bees, observed that among the multitude of ways humans could be harming the planet, one that has largely been ignored is the “pollinator crisis”—the perceived global decline in the number and viability of species that facilitate reproduction of flowering plants. The decline of pollinators is 1 form of global change that has a credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world. Only recently has the public begun to take notice and ask whether a pollinator crisis is brewing and, if so, what can be done to avert the crisis (NRC 2006).

For scientists, regulatory policy makers, and environmental managers contributing to our understanding of science and its integration in environmental management and decision making, let us not forget the plight of the honey bee. Studies are urgently needed to understand the influences of chemical and nonchemical stressors on honey bees and other pollinators. Studies devoted to examination of environmental stressors and factors potentially affecting honey bees were reported at the 17th annual European meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) held in Porto, Portugal, in May 2007, and pointed to the urgent need for ecotoxicology research on arthropods and assessments of alternatives to pest management methods that reduce effects on nontarget organisms.

The status of pollinators is truly a global environmental issue that transcends national borders. If global climate change is our foremost pressing environmental issue, then perhaps the fate of the millions of small pollinators worldwide— which, like Earth's climate, have been taken for granted through the centuries—may well be our next most pressing environmental challenge.

References

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  2. References
  • Johnson R. 2007. CRS report to Congress. Recent honey bee colony declines. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33938.pdf Accessed 30 May 2007.
  • [NRC] National Research Council. 2006. Status of pollinators in North America Board on Life Sciences, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, National Academy of Sciences. Washington DC: National Academies. 312 p.
  • [USDA] US Department of Agriculture. 2002. 2002 Census of agriculture. http://www.nass.usda.gov/Census_of_Agriculture/. Accessed 30 May 2007.