Sunday, March 23, 2014

Colony collapse disorder: A bees vs. no bees analogy

I'm unleashing a meme upon the world with the hopes that it will help to educate people about what happens when bees are not thriving.  I have pinned the meme to this blog post so that interested searchers can come here for the full story behind it.
This is not the meme - this is one of my favorite honeybee pics from this 2012 post.   Every spring, I let a few of my back yard winter garden vegetable plants bolt (go to flower) just so I can watch the bees.  This is a broccoli.  
You've no doubt seen headlines regarding colony collapse disorder on the internet and maybe you've even read a little about it.  But if you're like the rest of us, you've had to fight your way through endless streams of propaganda and political rhetoric (on the subject of bees, duh) and you've probably found it difficult to arrive at a perspective about what it all means in the grand scheme of things.
Mounds of dead bees, skulls and crossbones, predictions of the End Times, impenetrable statistics... it's all out there on the internet, just waiting to foul up your perspective.  
That image above is what results when you Google 'colony collapse disorder'.  Despite all the hype, there's nothing whatsoever in that material to give the average non-technical person a simple clear sense of what happens when there are no bees.  And without a grasp of the physical realities that result, how is a reader supposed to proceed into a contemplation of what it all means or how important it might be?

So my meme (given at the end of this post) addresses this by visually incorporating imagery depicting two very practical end-member results:  Bees vs. no bees.

In my case, it wasn't colony collapse disorder that gave me an opportunity to photograph these extremes - it was the 2014 polar vortex, which wreaked havoc on our normal seasonal progression into spring here in greater Houston Texas.  Basically what happened is that, by sun angle and calendar date, many plants concluded that it was time to flower.  But by prevailing severely cold weather, the wild bees decided that there was no way they were setting foot (or wing) outside their hives.
And this was the initial result for my blueberry plants.  What you see here is one bedraggled blueberry on the end of a stalk that contains mostly withered brown flowers, which are the ones that did not get pollinated.  Only one flower of many got lucky because this little portion of the plant happened to flower while it was still too cold for the bees to come out.

Blueberries are particularly sensitive to pollination.  They don't self-pollinate, they need different varieties available within about 100 feet of each other so that they can exchange genetic information, and bees need to do the work.  Commercial growers achieve good pollination by bringing bee hives to their fields while their plants are flowering.  They typically don't rely on natural bee populations like we hobby gardeners do in the suburbs.  
I sat on my patio and watched that initial early flowering, waiting for any sign of six-legged life, and there was none - it was an insect wasteland out there in my own back yard.  At times I would mutter to myself, "Houston, send me just one honeybee, Africanized or not - just one might be enough to turn this situation around."   It was very frustrating because blueberry plants also need cold weather in order to produce berries, and cold weather is something that we are not guaranteed to receive on the subtropical upper Texas coast.  So here I was in a unique situation of having had ideal polar vortex weather conditions which stimulated a profusion of blueberry flowers, followed by no pollinators to service those flowers.

Fortunately, blueberry bushes flower over the course of several weeks, and the weather warmed up enough in the intervening time for the bees to finally come out, which they did in abundance.  And this was the typical result for portions of the bushes that flowered later:
Blueberry bonanza!!  Quite a contrast, isn't it??  These two pictures in this post and in my meme were taken of parts of my two bushes which are separated by about five feet.  It's going to be a happy, happy day at my house when these things ripen and we can eat them.
Yes it is quite a contrast, and that's the point of my meme.  I wanted to show that bees vs. no bees does not mean better crop vs. worse crop.  It actually means something a lot closer to crop vs. no crop, and that holds true for many plant species besides blueberries.  And that's the message that you don't necessarily grasp right away by looking at the propaganda on the internet.

Again, I want to stress the fact that no actual colony collapse led to the differences you see in the photos above.  Our local wild bees initially stayed away because of the unusual cold weather.  But a lack of bees due to widespread colony collapse would be expected to produce a similar effect.

Memes away:

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