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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sick Bees, Pesticides, and the Fate of Ocean

So as often happens this time of year, I wake up feeling like I've just inhaled half a yard of gravel through my nose. Now I know what you're thinking, "That's what Keith Richards goes through every single day". But as I as I sit here with stuffy head and no hearing in one ear, all I can think is that I'm glad that I'm not a bee. Why? Because when bees get sick, this is what happens:

Normally, of course, the bees are protected by their immune systems. They create antibodies and destroy the viruses or bacteria that attack them in much the same manner as my body is doing even as I blog. But as a recent study shows, a new generation of pesticides are making bees much more susceptible to disease. Neonicotinoid insecticides, which have seen widespread use over the past several years, were shown to drastically increase honeybees' vulnerability to disease, even at doses that were too low to detect.

This wouldn't be such a big deal if it were just a few bees dying off. But over the past four years, many bee keepers across North America and Europe have seen 30-90 percent of their bees simply disappear without any apparent cause. This phenomenon has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and has been blamed on everything from environmental changes to cell phone towers. As with so many other species declines, the bees' disappearance is probably caused by a combination of factors.

To make an analogy, let's say that I have a cold (which I do). Nothing serious, just a bad case of the sniffles, so I rest and get better, right? But now let's say that it's a particularly cold winter, my house isn't well heated (again, this part is true), I can't get enough food, and I'm being exposed to a small amount of poison every day. Any one of these things on it's own (or in my case two combined) probably wouldn't be enough to kill me, but all of them combined just might. The same is true for bees, which is bad news for all of us who enjoy the crops these insects pollinate (almost everything type of plant that we eat).

But what, if anything, does this have to do with marine conservation? Well, there are many parallels. For one, a lot of the pesticides that we use in agriculture (and aquaculture) find their way into the ocean where they can harm marine invertebrates in much the same way as they do insects. Many of these invertebrates provide an important source of food for fish, so pesticides can indirectly harm the fish as well.
Particularly long-lasting pesticides, such as DDT, are part of a group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Though it is now banned North America and Europe, DDT is still produced in many developing ccountries and other POPs (such as fire retardants) are still widely used here. These chemicals can build up in fish , seabirds, and even our giant friend from yesterday's post: the sperm whale. In killer whales for instance, high levels of POPs accumulate in the whales' blubber and inevitably shorten their lifespan.
Once again, there are many causes for declines of marine species: ocean acidification, habitat destruction, over fishing, and a wide range of pollutants which include pesticides and pharmaceuticals to name a few. As with the bees, pesticides create one more stress on marine organisms on top of the myriad pressures they already face. That said, the recent flooding in Queensland, Australia, shows us what happens when all of the pollutants in one region of a typical industrialized country suddenly wash in to the ocean. Recently, a poisonous plume of muddy water flowed out of the Brisbane River into Moreton Bay, spelling disaster for local fishermen.
So next time you're lying on the couch with a stuffy head, give thanks that you are not a bee. In the meantime, click here find out what you can do to help our pollinating friends and the marine environment.

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