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Are We Blowing Colony Collapse Disorder Out of Proportion?

By Keith Farnish

From the Community Blogs.

Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. At this point I want to say to all the people who have jumped on the “Honey Bees are disappearing, we’re all doomed!” bandwagon: “Please read the literature.” I also want to urge them to read my book, not to sell copies (order it through your library) but simply so the panic writers can find out the nature of the real crisis. Honey bees are important — and if you happen to be a honey bee (unlikely, but you never know) then obviously honey bees are the most important things on Earth — but if they were to reduce in numbers to just a few indigenous colonies, then humanity would be fine.

Agriculture, on the other hand would start having a pretty hard time of it:

If you happen to be a viewer of the PBS television network in the USA, which is watched by 73 million people a week and provides “high-quality documentary and dramatic entertainment”,8 then you may have come across a documentary called ‘Silence of the Bees,’ which showed the potential impact of Colony Collapse Disorder. I hesitate to quote from the trailer, but here goes:

“Life as we know it, I don’t think will exist.”
“You won’t get any fruits, and you won’t get any vegetables.”
“We’re scared to death!”

I hope those people were quoted out of context because they really looked like they were gearing up for global collapse. Actually, that may not be such a stupid idea, but it probably won’t have anything to do with bees. The sober truth is that if the world’s bees disappeared, we would be faced with a disaster of sorts, but that disaster would be far more economic than ecological.

Despite our claim to be omnivores, humans eat a surprisingly small number of different food items. This was certainly not the case before industrial agriculture became the norm, leading to a focus on the easiest to grow, the most disease- and pest-tolerant, and the most profitable crops – in fact ease of growing along with disease- and pest-tolerance are just different ways of ensuring a steady, reliable stream of income in the modern age.

Writing Chapter 4 of “Time’s Up!” was interesting in two particular ways: first, the aforementioned “non disaster” came to light after reading various papers and articles, and realising very quickly that honey bees are exploited (although I don’t make this too explicit in the text – perhaps I should have done) in order to increase crop yield and thus boost the power of the industrial machine. Intensive farming is how people in the industrial world get the vast majority of their food; but it is no safety net, and as you will discover later on in the book, it is this very intensity and complexity that makes the industrial food system so vulnerable. That said, honey bees are very useful to have around — they are excellent pollinators, and need to be encouraged in natural ways, rather than sticking them into rows and rows of boxes next to cash crops, then shipping them off to the next farm when they have done their duty.

The second thing I found interesting was the analogue between Colony Collapse Disorder and the collapse of civilizations. Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) has been baffling agriculturalists, scientists and politicians for a few years now, and no one has really come to an agreement as to what causes it (I have my own ideas), except that it is happening and it’s probably down to a variety of causes. The key point is, though, that this phenomenon is repeated in all sorts of different situations where a number of pressures are brought to bear upon a system. Being of a slightly geeky nature, it was a delight to be able to use a simple Cusp Diagram, which is a mainstay of Chaos Theory, and tragically underused in climate science, given that it’s actually quite easy to understand — an explanation is given in the book. Linking CCD to the collapse of civilizations is not that huge a jump to make:

The power of the cusp diagram is such that it can be applied to subjects as diverse as a chalk cliff, a bee colony or even human civilization. Change the horizontal axis to indicate the normal impacts of endemic disease, food availability, quality of healthcare and sanitation, and even government or cultural attitudes, on population, and you can follow the upper path quite happily up and down to show how these affect the human population of a country or a region. Change the depth axis to include unpredictable factors like the incidence of catastrophic flooding and storms, the outbreak of war or civil unrest, the sudden unavailability of energy supplies that feed every system in Industrial Civilization, or any other factor that can increase the sensitivity of a population, and you can be hurtling straight into the drop zone quicker than you can say, “I want to get off ”. And this is certainly not idle mathematical speculation: human civilizations have undergone collapse after collapse, in almost all cases with the post-collapse society left as a shadow of its previous might. The Ottoman Empire, the Mayan civilization and the Roman Empire all collapsed for different reasons, but all of the collapses were sudden and uncontrollable.

This is important because it signals the presence of a thread that runs through the entire book: the inevitability of social collapse under stress; and particularly the catastrophic collapse of complex systems, like civilizations, because they are simply unsustainable. Personally I think the bees will be fine in their natural habitats; it’s just a shame that the way the civilized world produces food is taking away so much of that habitat that would otherwise be able to help us produce lots of food in a truly sustainable way.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

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