Decline of bees threatens our food supply

The continued decline of honeybees is raising alarm bells, with commercial beekeepers telling The New York Times that some 40 percent to 50 percent of hives needed to pollinate fruits and vegetables died last year.

Even people who don't consider themselves environmentalists are becoming concerned. Increasingly, researchers and beekeepers are coming to the conclusion that certain pesticides are behind the bee deaths (although that conclusion is far from settled).

The new class of bug killers, neonicotinoids, evidently become a part of the plant itself. Beekeepers and environmentalists are even suing the Environmental Protection Agency, asking for tighter regulations on such pesticides.

The disappearance of bees is not new — it has been noticed since 2005. Colony collapse disorder, as it is called, reached near-disaster levels in 2012.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has dispatched top officials to the nation's food basket, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions. There, some 1.6 million beehives just finished pollinating almond groves — beekeepers came from all over the country to get the job done. (Expect higher prices for almonds and almond milk as a result, because the bee shortage caused pollination prices to go up.)

The federal Agriculture Department is doing its own investigation as well, with officials fairly certain that the bee death rate is out of control. Usual losses are from 5 percent to 10 percent. Then, a third of the bees began dying; but last year's losses were unprecedented, beekeepers say.

With so many of America's food crops depending on bees to pollinate them, the loss of bees could be devastating to farmers. A quarter of the American diet depends on honeybee pollination, and without the presence of bees, harvests will shrink and food will cost more.

The bigger question, of course, is what the death of bees means to humanity at large. If the pesticides truly are the culprit, perhaps their presence in plants will be bad for humans, as well. Honeybees could be our canary in the coal mine, their deaths the warning that something is out of whack in the world.

Meanwhile, we take comfort that right here in Santa Fe, the hardy folks who love bees are tending the hives. Newcomers take up the hobby — there's even a Facebook page for the New Mexico Beekeepers Association for folks to learn from each other.

With care and love, the new beekeepers learn to identify their queens, catch swarms and, in towns such as Alamogordo, lobby local officials to make sure it is legal to keep bees in town. Thankfully, in Santa Fe, bee keeping is allowed. The taste of local honey, bursting with the flavor of local plants, is a treat to savor. For it, and for all the work of pollination, we need bees.

—The Santa Fe New Mexican

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