For 3,000 years, farmers in China's Sichuan province pollinated their fruit trees the old-fashioned way: they let the bees do it. Flowers produce nectar that attracts bees, which inadvertently transfer sticky grains of pollen from one flower to another, fertilizing them so they bear fruit. When China rapidly expanded its pear orchards in the 1980s, it stepped up its use of pesticides, and this age-old system of pollination began to unravel. Today, during the spring, the snow-white pear blossoms blanket the hills, but there are no bees to carry the pollen. Instead, thousands of villagers climb through the trees, hand-pollinating them by dipping "pollination sticks"—brushes made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters—into plastic bottles of pollen and then touching them to each of the billions of blossoms.
China's use of human bees is only one of many troubling signs of an agricultural crisis in the making. Bees the world over have been dying from a mysterious syndrome termed colony collapse disorder, or CCD. U.S. beekeepers lost 35 percent of their hives this winter, after losing 30 percent the previous year. Similar but less well-publicized losses have occurred in countries as far-flung as Canada, Brazil, India and China, as well as throughout Europe. A recent survey of wild-bee populations in Belgium and France found that 25 percent of species have declined in the past 30 years. Several species of bumblebees common in the United States as recently as 1990 have disappeared. In Britain, the British Beekeepers Association has warned that honeybees could disappear entirely from the island by 2018, along with £165 million worth of apples, pears, canola and other crops they pollinate.
The threat is vast. Most crops—87 of the world's 115 most important ones—require pollination to develop fruits, nuts and seeds, says agroecologist Alexandra-Maria Klein at Germany's University of Göttingen. Those crops account for about $1 trillion of the approximately $3 trillion in annual sales of agricultural produce worldwide. They also provide 35 percent of the calories consumed by humans each year, and most of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Every blueberry, cherry, apple, grapefruit, avocado, squash, cucumber, macadamia nut and almond depends on the ministrations of a bee for its existence. Even crops such as lettuce and broccoli need insect pollination to produce seed for the following year's supply.
Colony-collapse disorder is characterized by the sudden collapse of a full-strength hive in a matter of weeks, with adults leaving the hive and not returning, until the hive is deserted. "I found colonies that had just stopped living," says Borje Svensson, a Swedish beekeeper. "They had given up life without any sign of struggle." No one knows what causes it, but theories abound. U.S. researchers believe a previously little-known disease called Israeli acute paralysis virus is involved, while Spanish researchers suspect a fungus called Nosema. When France lost a third of its bees in the 1990s, beekeepers blamed Imidacloprid, a new pesticide that had been used on the sunflower crop, a honeybee favorite. France banned the use of Imidacloprid on sunflowers in 1999 and expanded the ban to other crops in 2004, yet its bees have not recovered. Despite this ambiguous evidence, many beekeepers around the world continue to blame Imidacloprid—the best-selling pesticide in the world, with annual sales of nearly $860 million. Others have pointed fingers at malefactors ranging from cell phones to genetically modified crops, with little evidence. The leading theory is that colony collapse is caused by a combination of viruses, pesticides, the parasitic varroa mite, drought and stress triggered by commercial colonies' overwork and poor nutrition.
The meta-culprit is the shift to large-scale agriculture. When most farms were small family affairs, pollinators came from nearby wildlands. But the growth of massive industrial farms has put most crops out of the reach of wild insects. So farmers need to supply artificially large numbers of bees to pollinate their fields in the spring. The European honeybee is the only pollinator that fits the bill: adapted for dense living in tree hollows, it takes naturally to man-made wooden hives, making it the only bee that comes in convenient boxes of 50,000 that can be trucked from crop to crop. Wild insects such as bumblebees and tropical flies still account for 15 percent of pollination, including crops such as cacao (chocolate). Yet these wild insects are declining worldwide due to loss of habitat and increased pesticide use. Farmers the world over now rely almost completely on the European honeybee, one of 20,000 species of bees. Many beekeepers now make more money from pollination fees than from honey production.
The lack of bees has reached crisis proportions in California's Central Valley. Almonds, for years the most profitable crop in the state, expanded in acreage from 550,000 in 2005 to 615,000 in 2007, and are expected to reach 800,000 by 2010. These high-density plantations require more than two hives per acre—which means a bumper crop of almonds will soon call for nearly 2 million hives of bees. That's as many bees as currently exist in the entire United States, yet just a third of what existed 60 years ago.
Paying for those bees has sapped almond growers' profits. Joe Traynor, a "pollination broker" who matches almond growers who need bees with beekeepers looking to rent out their hives in the Central Valley, has watched the cost of pollination soar in recent years. "When I started in 1960, the price for honeybee rentals was $3 per hive. In 2004 it was $60 per hive. This year it was $160 to $180 per hive." Those runaway prices have made pollination expenses spiral to 20 percent of a California almond farmer's annual budget—more than fertilizer, water or even labor. In 2008, for the first time, the price for almonds fell below growers' cost of production. "They're really caught in the middle," says Traynor. "It's getting to be more and more of a hardship."
Because crops are now global commodities, their prices are set by the world market; farmers can't easily pass on cost increases to consumers. Instead, as their profits disappear, they go out of business or switch to more profitable crops. That reckoning day may soon come for almonds and many other bee-dependent crops. According to Bernard Vaissière, a pollination specialist with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, we wouldn't even know if we were currently experiencing reduced yields due to suboptimal pollination, because there is no previous baseline to measure against. "Insect pollination has been totally overlooked as a production factor in Europe until very recently," he says. "Pollinators were taken for granted, just like the air and the light. So if there is a yield loss, it will be attributed to anything but pollination deficit. But there has been a definite increase in pollination-rental fees in many parts of France." Prices of many of the major insect-pollinated crops have soared in recent years. Farmers manage to get their crops pollinated, but at greater expense.
Governments have done little to solve the problem. In June 2007 the U.S. House of Representatives held an emergency hearing on the status of pollinators in North America and allotted $5 million to honeybee research in the ensuing farm bill, but the funding was cut a year later. Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture made $4 million available to a consortium of universities for research. On April 22, calling on the British government to provide £8 million in emergency funding, British Beekeepers Association president Tim Lovett said, "CCD has not yet crossed the channel from Europe, but we are urging the government that it needs to be prepared should this happen. Does the government want the nation to go without honey on their toast, not have homegrown strawberries to go with cream, and even put their own crusade for the public to eat five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables at risk?" Jeff Rooker, Britain's Food and Farming minister, responded that the government didn't have the funds to help.
That leaves beekeepers scrambling to keep the world in fruits and vegetables. "We can't stand another bug or virus or pest," says Mark Brady, president of the American Honey Producers Association. "Right now the industry is like crystal. It's that fragile. One slip and it will shatter."