The Plight of the Honeybee

Mass deaths in bee colonies may mean disaster for farmers--and your favorite foods

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Photograph by Hannah Whitaker for TIME

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Already, commercial beekeepers have adjusted to the threats facing their charges by spending more to provide supplemental feed to their colonies. Supplemental feed raises costs, and some scientists worry that replacing honey with sugar or corn syrup can leave bees less capable of fighting off infections. But beekeepers living adrift in a nutritional wasteland have little choice. The beekeeping business may well begin to resemble the industrial farming industry it works with: fewer beekeepers running larger operations that produce enough revenue to pay for the equipment and technologies needed to stay ahead of an increasingly hostile environment. "Bees may end up managed like cattle, pigs and chicken, where we put them in confinement and bring the food to them," says Oliver, the beekeeper and independent researcher. "You could do feedlot beekeeping."

That's something no one in the beekeeping world wants to see. But it may be the only way to keep honeybees going. And as long as there are almonds, apples, apricots and scores of other fruits and vegetables that need pollinating--and farmers willing to pay for the service--beekeepers will find a way.

So if the honeybee survives, it likely won't resemble what we've known for centuries. But it could be worse. For all the recent attention on the commercial honeybee, wild bees are in far worse shape. In June, after a landscaping company sprayed insecticide on trees, 50,000 wild bumblebees in Oregon were killed--the largest such mass poisoning on record. Unlike the honeybee, the bumblebee has no human caretakers. Globally, up to 100,000 animal species die off each year--nearly every one of them without fanfare or notice. This is what happens when one species--that would be us--becomes so widespread and so dominant that it crowds out almost everything else. It won't be a second silent spring that dawns; we'll still have the buzz of the feedlot honeybee in our ears. But humans and our handful of preferred species may find that all of our seasons have become lonelier ones.

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