Chapter 4

One Hundredth Of A Metre


Imagine a spring day.

See it in your mind; the haze of warmth at the edge of the field disturbing the patterns of air and giving the impression of water, a narrow strip of silvery light in a verdant land that has drunk in the rains of April. Smell it; the heady scent of open flowers releasing their aroma as the bleached sun reaches its apex. Breathe it in; the sharp tang of a distant coast mixed with the moisture of a dew-laden lawn. Feel it; the rough woody trunk of the tree at your back, the dampness on your hands that lie in the grass, the hope of a season of life and continuity.

Hear it. Hear the pulsing drone of a distant light aircraft crossing the sky; hear the evidence of habitation, the mowers and the moan of traffic, just out of sight; hear the tolling church bells drift across the land, striking the noon, sending out a message of time and divinity; hear the honey bees. Silence. The aircraft drone lessens, the mowers halt, the traffic stops, the bells lose their voice, but the bees’ wings are not beating. The empty silence that was once full of humming life is total. This year the pollen will not be shared.

A vision of countryside hell, perhaps, but something that is becoming more likely with each passing season. The multiple enemies of agricultural intensity, climate change, insect parasites, genetic modification and many other possible adversaries, make life as a bee far less kind than their sonorous hum would suggest. The signals of a potential apian catastrophe have only just started emerging, and they are amplified with every bee colony that undergoes CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD is dramatic, and final for the colonies that it affects:

VISALIA, Calif., Feb. 23 — David Bradshaw has endured countless stings during his life as a beekeeper, but he got the shock of his career when he opened his boxes last month and found half of his 100 million bees missing.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Mr. Bradshaw, 50, said from an almond orchard here beginning to bloom. “Box after box after box are just empty. There’s nobody home.”[i]

Like Colic in children, which describes a number of symptoms but no specific cause, Colony Collapse Disorder is a condition by which a honey bee colony – usually defined as a fully functioning social order including a queen – dramatically reduces in numbers over a very short period, sometimes overnight. The really odd thing is that the hives are abandoned: there are few if any bodies and the abandonment is almost total, to the extent that larvae are left in sealed cells, all of which will eventually die of starvation. Often the queen remains along with just a few loyal workers.

 The impact of CCD worldwide is becoming more dramatic as it spreads – bear in mind that this isn’t a disease as such, but it is nevertheless spreading – since 2006 it has moved rapidly across the USA and into Canada, and also affected Australia and many European countries. Because there is no central beekeeping “agency” then details and statistics tend to be sketchy, but there is little doubt that the types of events being reported bear the hallmarks of CCD. What actually causes it is another matter. Many theories have been expounded, from the highly feasible (pesticides, parasites, viruses and fungi), to the bizarre (mobile phone signals) to those that are very difficult to show much evidence for at all (genetically modified crops and climate change).

We can easily rule out the mobile phone issue: bees do indeed use some form of electromagnetic navigation system, and mobile phones (cell phones) and their masts do indeed use a form of electromagnetism – microwaves – but given that the majority of hives affected are in rural areas, which have few masts, then we can safely ignore some of the wild speculation that purports to be science[ii]. Pesticides seem an easy target, and their impact on the habitats and food sources of many traditional farmland birds since wide-spectrum pesticides came of age is incontestable; but again, evidence of their impact on bees is sparse and contradictory. On the other hand, the presence of numerous types of disease causing organisms, including common types of fungi that had been absent from hives for more than seventy years[iii] and also a particularly virulent pathogen called Israeli acute paralysis virus[iv] in most affected colonies, give the impression that there are common factors involved. As I write no single cause has been identified, but I do have my own thoughts on this which go far deeper than just simple organisms: as you will see in this chapter, bees are a lot more similar to you and I than you may realise.


What Are Bees?

It’s unlikely you don’t know something about bees: in Western cultures the term “the birds and bees” is used to mean sex, when speaking to children; “Royal Jelly” is sold in many health food shops as a supposed miracle food, while on the other hand it can cause a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction in some humans[v]; being stung by a bee can be very painful, and fatal for the perpetrator, although beekeepers will be more than happy to shrug off such stings as just part of the job; bees create hexagonal cells in which they raise larvae to become members of their colony, and to store nectar which turns into honey. Winnie the Pooh loves honey and it never, ever goes off if kept dry; which makes Pooh, with his honey filled clay pots, a very sensible bear indeed. We love bees, even though apiphobia (fear of bees) is extremely common. What a strange and wonderful relationship we have with them.

Getting down to the science: bees are closely related to ants and wasps, although many types of wasp and ant are carnivorous, or at least omnivorous, whereas bees feed solely on nectar and pollen. All bees occupy a single family called Apoidea, which, although it includes certain types of wasps that look as though they are wearing corsets, mainly contains bees, of which there are around 20,000 varieties. Nectar is secreted by flowers to attract insects; bees feed on the nectar directly and also carry it back to the nest or hive (an artificial type of nest) which then ferments to make honey. The reason plants produce tempting nectar is to encourage the visits of pollinating insects, like bees, which then distribute the pollen to other flowers and thus fertilise the plant. As hummingbirds are also pretty good pollinators, the use of birds and bees as a euphemism for sex seems rather apt.  Pollen, which is produced by every flower, is rich in protein, and is used by bees to feed newly emerged larvae, fattening them up before they pupate.

Bees work very hard collecting food, building their combs and bringing up youngsters, but surprisingly they may spend a large amount of time back at the nest resting, collecting information and awaiting instructions for finding a good source of food[vi]. When the food source is identified by a worker, bees dance, and the dance varies depending on the distance and direction of the food source. Some types of bee are solitary or live in small groups, but the vast majority, in terms of absolute numbers, are social – living in large communities, or colonies. It is the social bees that produce honey, and provide the bulk of the pollination that humans depend upon for many types of plant food. If you eat honey then you are eating the product of a complex and highly evolved animal community.


The Need For Bees

Has this ever happened to you: someone you idolise or deeply respect, for whatever reason, is making a public appearance close to where you live, or maybe you just see them walking along. You take the opportunity to speak to him or her and rather than the wonderfully formed nuggets of wisdom you are expecting, what comes out of their mouth is something that totally throws you off balance – it’s nothing like you were expecting, and you no longer feel the same about that person.

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

This statement is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein and, after reading it, I thought: “What is he going on about? Call yourself a scientist.” A little research later finds that Einstein probably never said any such thing, and whoever did say this was certainly not a biologist of any repute (which, incidentally, Einstein was not). But stop there! If you happen to be a viewer of the PBS television network in the USA, which is watched by 73 million people a week and provides “high-quality documentary and dramatic entertainment”[vii] then you may have come across a documentary called “Silence of the Bees,” which showed the potential impact of Colony Collapse Disorder. I hesitate to quote from the trailer, but here goes:

“Life as we know it, I don’t think will exist.”

“You won’t get any fruits, and you won’t get any vegetables.”

“We’re scared to death!”[viii]

I hope those people were quoted out of context because they really looked like they were gearing up for global collapse. Actually, that may not be such a stupid idea, but it probably won’t have anything to do with bees. The sober truth is that if the world’s bees disappeared we would be faced with a disaster of sorts, but that disaster would be far more economic than ecological.

Despite our claim to be omnivores, humans eat a surprisingly small number of different food items. This was certainly not the case before industrial agriculture became the norm, leading to a focus on the easiest to grow, most disease and pest tolerant, and most profitable crops – in fact ease of growing along with disease and pest tolerance are just different ways of ensuring a steady, reliable stream of income in the modern age. Diets prior to the industrial agricultural system tended towards local availability, which is obviously the only type of availability in hunter-gatherer societies; and even up to very recent times in the industrial West, widespread kitchen gardens and home growing maintained a wide range of different food types, as well as a huge range of different varieties of similar crops. Not only that, but it seems that the earliest human diets, with their dependence on local availability may also have been far healthier than modern diets which literally have the whole world on a plate: Palaeolithic diets (we are talking tens of thousands of years ago) had more fibre, less sodium, more vitamins and minerals, and a virtual absence of refined sugars[ix].

Consumption of animals (meat and fish) and vegetables varies around the world depending partly on the particular culture, but especially on the level of industrialisation[x]. In the least industrialised parts of the world, meat consumption is around thirteen percent of total calories, whereas in industrialised countries, as a whole, the percentage of meat calories is twenty-eight percent. In the USA virtually all consumed meat, excluding fish, derives from cows, chickens and pigs[xi]. You won’t be surprised then to hear that just fifty-seven single vegetable crops (including all cereals, pulses, tubers, leafy vegetables and fruits) account for 94.5 percent of global vegetable-based food production[xii]. Not quite a monoculture world, but a far cry from the thousands of potential food sources that exist: if it ain’t farmed, it ain’t eaten.

Despite the blinkered attitude to crop variety in industrial cultures, as far as pollination goes this attitude seems not to have caused too many problems up to now. Around sixty percent of the world’s production of crops is completely independent of animal pollination[xiii] (where animals include many types of insects and, to a lesser extent, birds and bats), relying instead on wind or self-pollination. This in itself is an issue, especially where genetically modified crops that do rely on wind pollination are grown, and inevitably cause contamination wherever the pollen enters a non-GM area. But, and this is a medium sized “but” that could become a big “but”, something like twenty percent of all crop production does require animal pollination in order to improve yield, and about fifteen percent requires pollination to improve seed production[xiv].

In Chapter Three I said that we were pushing the soil and natural plant varieties ever harder in order to maximise food production. As well as this, humans are wantonly using vast amounts of synthetic fertiliser to the same ends. The result of fertiliser overuse leads to the twin threats of nitrous oxide being sent up into the atmosphere – which accounts for around eight percent of anthropogenic global heating (that which is caused by humans) – and the eutrophication, or oxygen starvation, of the waters into which nitrogen-rich rain and irrigation water flows. Genetically modified crops are a typical response by the agricultural industry to increased food stress: rather than suggesting we reduce the amount of animals we eat that are fed the very crops humans are striving to grow in ever greater quantities (that would mean reducing output, which is no way to do business), agribusinesses and governments together try to persuade us that fiddling around with genes is the way forward.

That the margin between potential crop production and actual crop consumption is getting ever narrower is not in doubt – witness the startled reaction to fuel companies buying up land and food crops from which they can make biofuels – so it is easy to understand why the extra advantage, however small, that honey bees and other animal pollinators provide for farmers is actually very important indeed. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization put this starkly:

Most high-quality agricultural land is already in production. The marginal benefit of converting new land diminishes. Available land and water resources are declining in many developing countries. Future food production growth will primarily depend on further intensification of agriculture in high potential areas and to a lesser degree in low potential areas.[xv]

Fertile land being such a scarce resource for humans, even for humans that have no qualms about removing tropical rainforests and draining marshland to obtain fertile soil, means that something like Colony Collapse Disorder could just as appropriately be renamed Production Collapse Disorder; but in this case, the disorder would most definitely be one of our making.


Why Collapse Happens

Collapse, as the name implies, is not something that is gradual but, to a certain extent, it is possible to predict it. If you have a sea-cliff made of porous chalk, underneath which is a bed of clay through which rainwater cannot penetrate, and the fissures or joints in that chalk are angled downwards towards the cliff face, then collapse is pretty much inevitable. There is a maximum weight and a minimum amount of friction that the blocks of chalk can cope with before they start to slide apart, and if you have ever run your finger along a piece of wet chalk then you can understand how slippery the edges of the rock at the fissures will be after a period of heavy rain. After a while the water, which has not been able to sink further than the layer of clay, starts to rise again as a water table, and that perfect combination of factors – the saturated chalk base, the slipperiness of the joints and the weight of the chalk – means that it is not a case of whether, but when the cliff will collapse.

The same pressures and limitations apply to all sorts of simple and complex systems. A cliff face is a system: it has inputs (rain, wind and waves, road traffic above, burrowing animals below), processes (erosion, changes in friction, movement of materials) and outputs (water, rock, soil), but it is a relatively simple system. The global atmosphere, on the other hand, although still a system, is a devilishly complex one which explains why all the computing power in the world can only hope to accurately predict small parts of it even over small timescales. Thankfully, we do have the experience of many people, along with numerous tools and models that can allow us to make pretty good guesses as to what will happen in the future.

A bee colony is a system, and also a pretty complex one, involving as it does a large number of living organisms each of which have their own behavioural variations, as well as a range of different “colony behaviours” such as collecting pollen and nectar, raising young bees, keeping the colony cool or warm, protecting the colony and so on. That said, you can simplify the processes of the colony and easily demonstrate what happens when different factors affect it. The type of model in Figure 5 may look familiar to some people, but to others it may be unfamiliar and possibly unnerving: don’t worry; I’ll explain it to you.

Bee Colony Cusp Diagram

Figure 5: Bee Colony Cusp Diagram (Source: Author’s image)  

The picture shows a graph with three different dimensions, or axes. Each axis indicates the relative strength of a particular factor. The horizontal axis, running from right to left, shows the stress caused by the various diseases that normally affect the colony: stresses that would affect the ability of a colony to sustain numbers. These diseases include a range of different parasites such as the notorious Varroa mite plus the viruses and fungi mentioned earlier. The vertical axis shows the number of bees that the colony is capable of maintaining at any one time. The number is limited by the size of the hive or nest, beyond which some of the bees are forced to swarm in order to find a new location. Finally, the axis on the left – the depth axis – shows all the other stresses, on top of the normal diseases, that may make the difference between the size of the colony gradually decreasing, and the colony undergoing a collapse.

Because honey bees have evolved certain defences, both physiological and social, against the various “normal” disease stresses, then the appearance of one or even two different disease causing organisms won’t necessarily be devastating – in most cases there will be a reduction in the overall numbers in the colony, but collapse is unlikely unless a new enemy emerges to which the bees have no defence. This type of scenario is shown by the blue line, which gradually curves downwards as the normal stresses increase. On the other hand, if the colony is already weakened in some way, such as from a very poor summer which provides only small amounts of nectar and pollen, then the same diseases can have a much more destructive effect on the colony. The appearance of a major infestation of the Varroa parasite could, under these circumstances, cause a dramatic reduction in bee numbers, as could a virulent fungal infection exacerbated by cool, moist weather. The red line shows how precipitous a drop this can be, suddenly changing from a gradual decline to a collapse in numbers.

As I said earlier, the jury is out on genetically modified organisms and pesticides as a causal agent for CCD, but if you use the cusp diagram then it turns out that climate change is another matter. Cool, moist weather is not something you would expect from the current trends in climate change, but shifting climate patterns are increasing the likelihood of flash flooding in almost all parts of the world, which can have a considerable impact on the availability of flora. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Widespread increases in heavy precipitation events have been observed, even in places where total amounts have decreased. These changes are associated with increased water vapour in the atmosphere arising from the warming of the world’s oceans, especially at lower latitudes. There are also increases in some regions in the occurrences of both droughts and floods.”[xvi] The longer, drawn-out summer droughts that are already apparent in large parts of China, Australia and Canada, for instance, are also bad for flower production, which can be significant in moving bee colonies from the relative safety of the “blue line” to the dangers of the “red line”. Professor Eric Mussen, Secretary of the American Association of Professional Apiculturalists, agrees:

“I am pretty concerned about it this year because, at Davis, in January we only had 0.17 of an inch of rain and we should have had 4 inches. The early mustard – we never got it.”

“In many situations the bees were weakened by not being able to get a nice mix of nutrients that they needed from the pollens, and I think that weakened them. Under those circumstances you can take all the other (causes), and there are plenty of them, and combine them together and down go the bees”[xvii]

Temperature change alone, as I have shown in earlier chapters, can provide an excellent opportunity for parasites to breed more quickly and frequently: the resulting exponential climb in parasite numbers, particularly in the case of Varroa (something beekeepers universally dread) would likely turn the problem from something that is currently manageable into one that could silence entire hives in a matter of days.

Such is the power of the cusp diagram, that it can be applied to subjects as diverse as a chalk cliff, a bee colony or even human civilization. Change the horizontal axis to indicate the normal impacts of endemic disease, food availability, quality of healthcare and sanitation, and even government or cultural attitudes, on population, and you can follow the blue line quite happily up and down to show how these affect the human population of a country or a region. Change the depth axis to include unpredictable factors like the incidence of catastrophic flooding and storms, the outbreak of war or civil unrest, the sudden unavailability of energy supplies that feed every system in Industrial Civilization[xviii], or any other factor that can increase the sensitivity of a population, and you can be hurtling straight into the red zone quicker than you can say, “I want to get off”. And this is certainly not idle mathematical speculation: human civilizations have undergone collapse after collapse, in almost all cases with the post-collapse civilization barely a husk of its previous might. The Ottoman Empire, the Mayan Civilization and the Roman Empire all collapsed for different reasons: all of the collapses were sudden and uncontrollable.

The British Empire collapsed from its dominating a vast area in excess of 35 million square kilometres in the late 1930s to little more than a few scattered territories within the space of ten years. The sheer size of such an empire, which constituted a civilization controlled according to the rules of the Parliament of Great Britain, could only be maintained while the populations of the different countries were relatively placid – often through a combination of military force and political corruption. With the British navy and army fully occupied in the war effort between 1939 and 1945, such control was no longer feasible. This combined with the growth of a number of civil protest movements to make collapse almost inevitable. “It is hard to say that any one of [the many pressures] was decisive but, without an awakening of national consciousness in a great many colonies, several external pressures would have lost much of their importance.”[xix] In essence, it was not the normal stresses that caused the collapse of the British Empire; it was those extraordinary additional stresses that moved it from the manageable blue line to the uncontrollable, catastrophic red line.

The true cause of Colony Collapse Disorder may never quite be resolved – the ideas presented above are, after all, just educated guesses – but the silver lining for the bee is that many are likely to have escaped the hive in time to be able to form a new colony somewhere else. As I see it, the collapse of a human civilization may not provide such a clear cut opportunity to escape: some people might make it, but a lot more may not have the chance to get out in time. Before you go on to the next chapter, it’s worth taking some time to consider whether you think humans are on the blue line, or on the red line.

[Continue to Chapter 5]


[i] Alexie Barrioneuvo, “Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril”, New York Times, (accessed 15 January, 2008)

[ii] This is a particularly good (bad) example of the bizarre thought processes that lead to scare stories: Mobile phones don’t even use the same microwave frequencies as DECT phones. A friend of mine dug out even more examples including :,, and (all accessed 13 June, 2008).

[iii] Diana Cox-Foster, “Prepared Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture on Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bee Colonies in the United States”, (accessed 18 January, 2008)

[iv] J.R. Minkel, “Mysterious Honeybee Disappearance Linked to Rare Virus”, Scientific American, (accessed 18 January, 2007)

[v] Testi S. et al, “Severe anaphylaxis to royal jelly attributed to cefonicid.”, J Investig Allergol Clin Immunology (17), 2007

[vi] Alan Campion, “Bees at the bottom of the garden”, Northern Bee Books, 2001.

[vii] (accessed 18 January, 2008)

[viii] You can watch the whole, hilarious trailer at: (accessed 18 January, 2008)

[ix] L. McClure, “Is a Paleolithic Age Diet an Optimal Diet for Modern Human Beings?”,

[x] World Health Organization, “Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases”, (accessed 18 January, 2008)

[xi] Mildred M. Haley, “Changing Consumer Demand for Meat: The U.S Example, 1970 – 2000”, USDA, (accessed 18 January, 2008)

[xii] Alexadra-Maria Klein etc al, “Importance of Pollinators in Changing Landscapes for World Crops”, Proc. R. Soc. B. (272), 2007.

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] “Current world fertilizer trends and outlook to 2009/10”, UN FAO, (accessed 18 January, 2007)

[xvi] “Climate Change 2007, The Physical Science Basis”, IPCC Working Group 1, (accessed 21 January, 2008)

[xvii] Quoted in George Raine, “Many causes blamed for honeybee die-off”, San Francisco Chronicle, (accessed 21 January, 2008)

[xviii] At this stage I need to define the word, which repeats throughout the text in ever more accusative terms: Civilization. Definitions of Civilization vary but in essence the word means, “city dwelling”, and is defined by it’s dependence for resources on a larger geographical area than the civilization actually occupies. The best general summary for “civilization” I can find (from – accessed 29 April, 2008):

Primary Criteria: 
1. Settlement of cities of 5,000 or more people. 
2. Full-time labor specialization. 
3. Concentration of surplus. 
4. Class structure. 
5. State-level political organization. 

Secondary Criteria: 
1. Monumental architecture. 
2. Long-distance trade.
3. Sophisticated art. 
4. Writing. 
5. Predictive sciences (math, astronomy, etc.) 

The secondary criteria have a general correspondence with civilization, but are not definitive. There are plenty of civilizations that lack one or more of them, two out of five (predictive sciences and sophisticated art) are human universals, and two of the remaining items (monumental architecture and long-distance trade) are known among non-civilized societies.

The primary criteria, though, help us to begin to understand the true nature of civilization. It is my supposition that these criteria form a reflexive set; that no one of these criteria can be met without also fulfilling the other four. That these five primary criteria form a single cultural “package,” best defined by the word “civilization.”

I have used the extended term “Industrial Civilization” to distinguish the current, most destructive form of civilization from the various civilizations that have existed in the past. It is Industrial Civilization that needs to be dealt with. Inevitably, other civilizations will follow – that problem will have to be dealt with when it happens.

[xix] T.O. Lloyd, “Empire: The History of the British Empire”, Continuum, 2001.

A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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