Monday, May 07, 2007

Bees, Einstein & The Future of Civilization

Scripps News: The reference librarian at the college where I work told me a few days ago that every year for at least the last 20, a hive of wild bees has swarmed behind the decorative panels outside the library's third floor, on the side facing the English building. Sometimes, he says, bees find their way through tiny cracks into the library itself to die among the stacks.

Not this year, though; the librarian reports that the bees haven't built their annual spring hive yet. I'm probably overly quick to attribute the most normal variations in the cycles of climate and the biological world to global warming. But this report was particularly foreboding in the light of comedian Bill Maher's comments on the April 27 edition of his HBO show "Real Time."

Maher said that beehives across the country and in Europe are experiencing a dramatic decline for reasons that no one understands. And he quoted Albert Einstein as having once said that if bees were to suddenly disappear, all mankind would die out in only four years, because of the role they play in pollinating much of the food that we eat.

Even though the Einstein quote has appeared in a number of respectable media sources, it appears to be apocryphal; Einstein probably never said it., which is in the business of debunking urban myths, notes that even though Einstein died in 1955, the quote didn't show up until 40 years later, first used, as far as Snopes can tell, by European beekeepers in defense of their industry against proposed changes in government policy.

At any rate, the loss of honeybee hives appears to be real. Bees have always been susceptible to weather changes, viruses, fungi and other natural calamities, but since last fall a significant number of hives have fallen prey to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is a mysterious condition that causes worker bees to abandon their hives, leaving behind the queen and immature bees. The workers are never seen again, and within a week or two the hive is dead. Mysteriously, other animals that would ordinarily scavenge the honey in a dead hive leave CCD hives alone.

Bees are disappearing so quickly that the extent of the damage is hard to estimate. At least 27 states have been affected, and estimates of national hive loss range from around 25 percent up to 60 percent. Some beekeepers have lost 90 percent of their bees.

We can live without honey, of course, but the real damage is occurring among bees that are primarily pollinators. As much as a third of the food we eat depends at least partially on honeybee pollination.

The cause of CCD? Parasites, mites and fungi have all been suggested. Since CCD seems to affect pollinating bees more than honey producers, some have suggested that the stress of transporting thousands of hives on flatbed trucks to various agricultural areas around the country is too much for the bees. My favorite explanation is that the proliferation of cell-phone signals disrupts bees' mysterious navigation systems and prevents them from finding their way back to the hive. The bottom line: As yet, no one knows what causes CCD or how much worse it will get before it gets better.

But it probably will get better. Life on earth seems remarkably resilient. Nevertheless, while life goes on, civilizations do collapse, just like bee colonies. In these ruined hives, it's not hard to imagine echoes of the destruction of once-mighty civilizations like the Mayan or Anasazi, suddenly undone and depopulated by complicated and mysterious forces. While life may be resilient, you don't have to be Einstein to see that our particular way of living in the world is fragile and needs constant attention.

Einstein, a physicist rather than an entomologist, probably didn't say anything about our dependence on the honeybee. But my favorite Einstein quotation _ which he really did say, I think _ seems appropriate when we consider the delicate structure of our globally interrelated civilization: "With the discovery of the atom, everything changed, except for man's thinking. Because of this we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas