The first time I heard of this a little-understood phenomenon was on the news in April 2007, where it was reported that Taiwan has lost over 10 million of their honey bees, reasons unclear. This was unheard of for me, especially because there’s no bee-keeping industry in Singapore. Nevertheless, it sparks a curiosity in me – Why do all the bees disappear all of a sudden and where have they all gone? It’s a bit like CSI, honeybee-style.

This phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive colony abruptly disappear is known as the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Originally found only in Western honeybee colonies in North America, CCD has also been observed in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Hawaii, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain etc. However, in the recent couple of years, the rate of attrition was alleged to have reached new proportions, and the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” was proposed to describe this sudden rash of disappearances. It’s troubling that it’s so widespread, and even more troubling that the cause(s) of the syndrome is not yet well understood. Of course, there have been many theories – environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, unknown pathogens, mites, pesticides, radiation from cellular phones or other man-made devices, and GM crops with pest control characteristics.

You may think, these are just bees, what’s the big fuss.

But bees ARE important. In many countries, such as US, honeybees are the predominant pollinators of many crops (e.g. almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, watermelons, strawberries and cucumbers). Sure, many but not all of these plants can be (and often are) pollinated by other insects in small holdings in the US, including other kinds of bees, but typically not on a commercial scale. There is also a presumption that when honeybees are absent from a region, native pollinators may reclaim the niche, typically being better adapted to serve those plants (assuming that the plants normally occur in that specific area).

However, even though on a per-individual basis, many other species are actually more efficient at pollinating, most native pollinators cannot be mass utilized as easily or as effectively as honeybees. In many instances, they will not visit the plants at all. On the other hand, beehives can be moved from crop to crop as needed, and the bees will visit many plants in large numbers, compensating via sheer numbers what they lack in efficiency. The commercial viability of these crops is therefore strongly tied to the bee-keeping industry.

Hence if the bees keep disappearing, the crop harvest is going to drop and the prices of all these fruits and vegetables are going to increase! I don’t want a day to come when I can’t even afford to eat an apple because it costs as much as a McDonald’s meal.

Interestingly though, a quote that has appeared in many of the news features about CCD is, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”