I recently took a class on Bees and Beekeeping at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign*. I took two things away from the class. One, beekeeping is not easy. The other is that the world may be in real trouble.
The decline in the honeybee population has a real impact on the overall environment we live in. We need bees for honey but more importantly pollination. One of the lessons we learned in the class is that even minor changes in the environment have a large impact on bees.
Global warming clearly has an impact on bees. One such negative consequence is that Africanized bees are expanding their territory further North. Africanized bees bees are not only more aggressive but have a greater likelihood to swarm. They are also more likely to leave their hives and not return.
Another problem that may be exacerbated by the change in climate are increased problems with pests, in particular Varroa Mites and Hive Beetles. Varroa Mites were not discovered until 1987 but are a devastating problem that can eventually kill entire hives. It seems as though almost every hive suffers from them. The Hive Beetle came from Africa and they are also an enormous problem.
Pesticides also are having a negative impact on bees. Even if pesticides don’t kill the bees directly they weaken their immune system such that it makes bees more vulnerable to the effects of global warming and pests. Attempts to limit the use of some types of pesticides do not appear entirely effective.
The reason I am writing about bees is not for beekeepers who already know about these problems. I am discussing these issues as an allegory. The impact of global warming and environmental damage through pesticides and other chemicals can be seen in all forms of life.That certainly includes humans.
The food we eat, the liquids we drink, and the chemicals we ingest purposefully or through pollution are slowly destroying our world. It is more likely society will die out as a result of a thousand cuts rather than a sword through the heart. An atomic bomb or a giant meteor are less likely to end the world than continuing the slow path to destruction we are already on.
Genetic engineering may be looked at as a solution to solving the problems we created. We can make bees more pest resistant or better able to tolerated climate changes. We can do the same with plants and food products. The question is, should we?
We have mapped the genome of the honey bee as well as that of a human being. Genetic mapping becomes cheaper and easier each year. The result of this work has been a huge benefit to science. The practical and positive impact of these accomplishments is so great it is hard to quantify.
Yet, the potential for negative consequences related to genetic engendering has greatly increased. Genetically modified corn and potatoes have been around for a while. So far with little adverse effect. Genetically modified salmon have also been approved to join their starchy friends on our dinner table. A salmon that grows twice as fast as its natural brother does cause me greater concern than a pest resistant spud.
The more we damage our ecosystem the more radical the steps we will need to try and repair it. Pests, throughout history, have adapted to the escalating war of poisons. What will happen when we take even more radical steps to protect the environment we are destroying?
The solution maybe taking a step back rather than a jump forward. Cutting down on green house gases and organic farming may be a backward step in the right direction. Even though these old fashion ideas may be harder than developing new poisons and relying on genetic engineering. Energy from sources other than coal and oil might also be a step in the right direction.
I have been considering these concepts for the book Bunny Blood Feud. What will the future look like if we have a race between mother nature and technology to maintain a livable ecosystem. In the past technology has been our savior. What will be the role of technology in the future?
As the population expands we have been able to keep pace by growing more food faster. We have used pesticides and fertilizers to make it so fewer people can grow food on less land. We have been able to locate oil where it would have been impossible to do so a few years back. What if we reach the end of the road. What if out of desperation we take things too far? These are the concepts I want to explore in Bunny Blood Feud.
* I would like to thank the 2016 Bees & Beekeeping Short Course held at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign for teaching me about bees. If I made an errors in my explanation of bee related issues it is likely my fault not theirs.