The Labor of Bees

In October last year, an elderly man in Dougherty County, Georgia was operating a bulldozer when he accidentally disturbed a bee colony.  He died after being stung more than 100 times, and investigations into his death confirmed that africanized honey bees have now taken up residence in the state of Georgia.  At least two other hives of africanized bees have since been discovered within the state. 

The first that many heard of africanized bees was seeing The Swarm sometime in the 70’s, an overly sensationalist movie in a decade that saw far too many melodramatic disaster films.  But the underlying premise of the movie — that africanized bees are more aggressive than the strains of honeybees introduced into North America by Europeans in 1691— was essentially accurate.  It was in 1957 that 26 Tanzanian queen bees were accidentally released into Brazil by a beekeeper who was attempting to breed a strain of bees that would have greater honey production than local bees, while also being better adapted to a tropical climate than European bees.  The africanized honey bees that have steadily been expanding their territory into the southern United States are directly descended from those Tanzanian queens. 

The concern to humans and animals over the encroachment of africanized honey bees is surely overblown; since their initial colonization in Texas in 1990, they have been responsible for fewer than 20 human deaths.  The greater concern is with their displacement of the European bee population because of a fundamental difference in their behavior traits.  Africanized bees put greater effort into colony reproduction than do European bees, who instead spend more time on the collection and storage of food, resulting in their critical role of pollenizing roughly 35% of the food supply. 

It seems, though, that the africanized bee is not even the greatest concern facing the European bee population.  In 2006, large-scale losses of managed honeybee colonies were noted in the United States and in parts of Europe.  The impact is perhaps felt nowhere more sadly than West Virginia where, in 2002, the honeybee was named the state’s official state insect.

While similar bee declines have been documented since as early as 1869, the recent reduction was considerably more severe, leading to its characterization as “colony collapse disorder.”  While some speculative ideas have been put forward as possible explanations, including the effects of mobile-telephone radiation (one begins to wonder what cell-phone radiation is not blamed for these days), genetically modified crops, or the effects of global climate change, there is little if any evidence for these mechanisms having an impact on bee colonies.  The reality is likely much more prosaic, with insect diseases and pesticides being the two causes that have received the most study.  Indeed, in October, a paper was published suggesting that the disorder was due to a combination of a virus and fungus that were found in every killed colony that was studied, leading some to claim that the mystery had been “solved.”  Time will tell, but a copy of the paper can be found here.  

What is interesting about the disorder from a legal perspective are the Pollinator Protection Act and the Pollinator Habitat Protection Act, both of which were introduced in Congress in 2007 to provide mechanisms through the Farm Bill to fund a number of programs to research and develop potential solutions.  These programs include the surveillance of pests and pathogens that affect honeybees as well as research into the biology of honeybees so that causes of the disorder can be better understood. 

Last month, the second annual report — also mandated by the bills — was released and can be found here.  It is fair to say that the reported results so far remain inconclusive.  The best hypothesis appears to be that the disorder is a result of multiple factors that may at times act in combination, making the problem a difficult one to solve. 

There is no question about the importance of honeybees to pollination, but the lack of a clear understanding of the population decline has begun to increase interest in promoting alternative pollinators.  While the European honeybee is undoubtedly the most important, it is estimated that there are about 4000 species of bee native to the United States.  Changes in farming practices to promote the activities of these other bee species might help to accommodate the decline.  But one is left with the obvious question:  If the mechanism that is affecting honeybees remains poorly understood, what is the chance that it will eventually spread to other bee species?

About Patrick Boucher

The author, Patrick M. Boucher, is a patent attorney living near Denver, Colorado and working at Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle. He holds a Ph.D. in physics as well as a J.D. He is an active member of the American Physical Society, and is admitted to practice law in the states of Colorado and New York, as well as to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is also a member of the Authors Guild and of the Colorado Authors League.