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For all the enemies that are massing against honeybees, a bee-pocalypse isn't quite upon us yet. Even with the high rates of annual loss, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has stayed stable over the past 15 years, at about 2.5 million. That's still significantly down from the 5.8 million colonies that were kept in 1946, but that shift had more to do with competition from cheap imported honey and the general rural depopulation of the U.S. over the past half-century. (The number of farms in the U.S. fell from a peak of 6.8 million in 1935 to just 2.2 million today, even as food production has ballooned.) Honeybees have a remarkable ability to regenerate, and year after year the beekeepers who remain have been able to regrow their stocks after a bad loss. But the burden on beekeepers is becoming unbearable. Since 2006 an estimated 10 million beehives have been lost, at a cost of some $2 billion. "We can replace the bees, but we can't replace beekeepers with 40 years of experience," says Tim Tucker, the vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
As valuable as honeybees are, the food system wouldn't collapse without them. The backbone of the world's diet--grains like corn, wheat and rice--is self-pollinating. But our dinner plates would be far less colorful, not to mention far less nutritious, without blueberries, cherries, watermelons, lettuce and the scores of other plants that would be challenging to raise commercially without honeybee pollination. There could be replacements. In southwest China, where wild bees have all but died out thanks to massive pesticide use, farmers laboriously hand-pollinate pear and apple trees with brushes. Scientists at Harvard are experimenting with tiny robobees that might one day be able to pollinate autonomously. But right now, neither solution is technically or economically feasible. The government could do its part by placing tighter regulations on the use of all pesticides, especially during planting season. There needs to be more support for the CRP too to break up the crop monocultures that are suffocating honeybees. One way we can all help is by planting bee-friendly flowers in backyard gardens and keeping them free of pesticides. The country, says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a research scientist at the University of Maryland who has studied CCD since it first emerged, is suffering from a "nature deficit disorder"--and the bees are paying the price.
But the reality is that barring a major change in the way the U.S. grows food, the pressure on honeybees won't subside. There are more than 1,200 pesticides currently registered for use in the U.S.; nobody pretends that number will be coming down by a lot. Instead, the honeybee and its various pests are more likely to be changed to fit into the existing agricultural system. Monsanto is working on an RNA-interference technology that can kill the Varroa mite by disrupting the way its genes are expressed. The result would be a species-specific self-destruct mechanism--a much better alternative than the toxic and often ineffective miticides beekeepers have been forced to use. Meanwhile, researchers at Washington State University are developing what will probably be the world's smallest sperm bank--a bee-genome repository that will be used to crossbreed a more resilient honeybee from the 28 recognized subspecies of the insect around the world.