Hundredth Of A Metre
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.
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.
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.
dramatic, and final for the colonies that it affects:
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Need For Bees
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
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."
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:
as we know it, I don’t think will exist.”
won’t get any fruits, and you won’t get any vegetables.”
scared to death!”[viii]
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.
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
of animals (meat and fish) and vegetables varies around the world depending
partly on the particular culture, but especially on the level of
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
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.
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].
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.
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:
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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]
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.
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
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.
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
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.
[i] Alexie Barrioneuvo, “Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril”, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/27/business/27bees.html (accessed 15 January, 2008)
[ii] This is a particularly good (bad) example of the bizarre thought processes that lead to scare stories: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MobilePhonesVanishingBees.php. Mobile phones don’t even use the same microwave frequencies as DECT phones. A friend of mine dug out even more examples including : http://www.monstersandcritics.com/tech/news/article_1293113.php/Mobile_phones_massacring_honeybees_,
http://www.hese-project.org/hese-uk/en/issues/nature.php (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”, http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/CCDPpt/CoxFosterTestimonyFinal.pdf (accessed 18 January, 2008)
[iv] J.R. Minkel, “Mysterious Honeybee Disappearance Linked to Rare Virus”, Scientific American, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=E0E0362F-E7F2-99DF-3F4F781839D6C879&page=1 (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.
[xi] Mildred M. Haley, “Changing Consumer Demand for Meat: The U.S Example, 1970 – 2000”, USDA, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/wrs011/wrs011g.pdf (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.
[xvii] Quoted in George Raine, “Many causes blamed for honeybee die-off”, San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/06/01/BUGQ2Q5AAI22.DTL (accessed 21 January, 2008)
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.
1. Monumental architecture.
2. Long-distance trade.
3. Sophisticated art.
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.
[Top Of Page]