March 10, 2011

UN Report Discusses Factors Behind Bee Population Loss

New types of fungal pathogens, a drastic decline in the number of flowering plant species, the increased use of agricultural chemicals, and climate change are partially responsible for the worldwide plight of bee colonies, claims a new report released Thursday by the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

The study, entitled Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, fingers more than a dozen possible factors, all of which have contributed in some way to the decline of the bee population. Additional causes identified in the UNEP report include memory-damaging insecticides, a global increase in the pest population, and rising air pollution rates.

"New kinds of virulent fungal pathogens--which can be deadly to bees and other key pollinating insects--are now being detected world-wide, migrating from one region to another as a result of shipments linked to globalization and rapidly growing international trade," UNEP officials said in a March 10 press release.

They also noted that approximately 20,000 flowering plant species, many of which bees rely upon for food, are facing extinction in the near future, and failure to address global warming "may aggravate the situation in various ways, including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns. This may in turn affect the quality and quantity of nectar supplies."

Despite these findings, Guardian reporter Alison Benjamin says that the UNEP report "fails to fully explain the crisis facing honeybees or address its underlying causes."

Benjamin calls it "significant" that the cover of the paper discussing the bee colony disorders contains a picture of a honeybee with a varroa mite on its thorax.

The varroa mite, she says, is an "external parasite"¦ which feeds on bees' circulatory fluid, spreads viral diseases and bacteria from hive to hive, and if left unchecked it will lead to the premature death of bee colonies--and is the most serious threat to the western honeybee in almost every country, say the report's authors."

However, Benjamin, co-author of the book 'A World without Bees', believes that the report's authors are "misguided in their belief that one way to avert a crisis is by conserving populations of wild bees, and even managing them where possible, to compensate for the continual loses of managed honeybees."

"The wild bees that we expose to pesticide-sprayed fields, monoculture crops and management by humans could all suffer the same fate as our immune-suppressed honeybee," she said. "Bumble bees that managed to pollinate tomatoes, for example, suffer from diseases that have spread to wild bumble bees. Until we have tackled and then eliminated the underlying causes of honeybee deaths, substituting one failing pollinator for another will not be a panacea."

Furthermore, as UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall told AFP, the bees are simply part of a bigger picture.

"The bees will get the headlines in this story," he said. "But in a sense they are an indicator of the wider changes that are happening in the countryside but also urban environments, in terms of whether nature can continue to provide the services as it has been doing for thousands or millions of years in the face of acute environmental change."


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