Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Film Review: Silence of the Bees

Check those eyeballs, folks: Can you spot the bees in this brilliant stand of Wisconsin roadside goldenrod?

There’s more than one.  And more than two.  I came across this stand (bigger than what you can see here) while biking out in the boonies of Wisconsin late this summer.  Despite their tiny size, the bees were hard to miss; their drone was loud and unmistakable.  Apparently, bees love goldenrod.

And I love bees.  Welcome to the topic of today’s post.

I’m all about cheap thrills.  Uh, I mean, “cheap entertainment.”  Aw, shucks.  I just mean that I like the library, all right?

Recently, my latest library hold request came in.  (Yup, I make hold requests.  I am a nerd.)  When I went to pick it up, a copy of Silence of the Bees from PBS’s Nature series awaited me.  If you have an impoverished library around your neck of the saguaro forest and can’t get the video, the previous link will let you watch the whole thing on-line.  Be aware, you’ll need about 45 minutes to see the whole thing.

The documentary first ran in October 2007 and examines the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which I’ve mentioned on this site before.  Although there were some unintentionally amusing quirks to the video, such as CSI-styled transitions and overly dramatic music while in the lab where bee abdomens were being sliced into, the documentary was interesting and covered most of the major theories of what’s happening to cause the massive disappearance of the bees.  At its heart, this film attempts to raise awareness of toll extracted when we rely on pollinators like bees to accomplish a natural process (pollination) on an unnatural scale (industrial agriculture).

The whole process of commercial hives being trucked around the country for pollination purpose is largely a consequence of increasing urbanization, monocultures in the fields, and invasive species pushing out native pollinators.  Bees have lost much of their habitat, and they have been vanishing as a result.  Act II, scene I:  Huge trucks of bees enter stage left.  Act II, scene II:  Bees start to die in huge numbers in countries across the world and in patterns never seen before.

However, it’s not just the bees–all pollinators have been under stress for 20-30 years, and CCD is simply a dramatic manifestation of a specific pollinator having been pushed too far. As this film points out, the one thing researchers seem to be firm on is that a single cause of CCD shouldn’t be isolated.  Basically every person interviewed stated that the cause of CCD was a combination of stressors, possibly including:

  • fatigue from being trucked across country for large-scale commercial pollination
  • neonicotinoid pesticides
  • malnutrition caused by pollinating huge fields of monocultures
  • varroa mites, nosema parasites
  • IAPV, or Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus
  • an as-yet-unidentified immune system suppression caused by a virus (like AIDS in humans) or from multiple stressors

The one theory this documentary shot down neatly was the theory that cell phones somehow interfere with bees’ navigational systems and keep them from returning to the hive.  Apparently this rumor was triggered by a study from German researcher Dr. Jochen Kuhn, but it doesn’t actually implicate cell phones at all.   First, the study used cordless phones, not cell phones.  Second, the time frame wasn’t long enough to accurately judge the results, and CCD could not be confirmed. Kuhn has since attempted to make it clear that his research cannot be used to assign CCD to cell phone networks.  Unfortunately, once these things start, they can be tough to stop…as evidenced by the persistence of the cell phone theory today, despite the lack of research supporting it.  (Author’s note: I am by no means a cell phone apologist.  I am convinced mine is most likely giving me a brain tumor and frequently ponder the merits of a stylish tinfoil cap and/or a landline.  However, there’s at least some merit to that particular neurosis.  On the tumor, not the tinfoil hat.)

It’s an interesting documentary, and well-made (though the guy who slammed Kuhn’s research seems to have had a detail or two wrong).  If you have been following CCD research, you probably won’t find much new.  If you’re only passingly familiar, however, Silence of the Bees does a solid job presenting the different theories and highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. Plus, you can watch it for free.  What are you waiting for?

Finally, this film raises a worthy consideration: If pollinators are under such stress due to habitat loss, what can we offer them to encourage them to thrive?  While most of us won’t have much to do with ferreting out IAPV, we can plant flowering trees, shrubs, and vines that pollinators love.  What character does an unboken lawn of uniform grass have?  Cultivate plants that invite friendly bugs in for a party instead!  Meanwhile, farmers can consider replacing biological controls (like good bugs and birds) to control pests, and creating edge rows of native plants around their crops to attract the native pollinators.  Expensive?  Well, it’ll cost us something.  Though I’m no economist, I figure those steps can’t cost us nearly the $90 billion it’s estimated to cost in order to replace honeybee pollination in the U.S.


2 Comments so far

  1. Chris in Philly November 17th, 2008 4:45 am

    The documentary completely bypassed the reality that toxic GMO proteins bioaccumulate in the food chain. When CRY proteins are in the bee’s intestines in the presence of fungus, they will bond to BOTH, even though the CRY can’t attach to and damage the intestine alone. CRY clusters embed in host cell membranes act as uncontrolled potassium channel leaks.

    GMOs are safe – so long as you don’t eat anything else that might aid in their binding to your intestines.

  2. Laurel November 17th, 2008 9:34 pm

    I had heard some off-hand speculation about GMOs in online communities, but no one had any hard stats or research research results. I’m very interested in the potential effects of GMO on pollinators in general and bees in particular–do you have some resources I could check out to learn more about the specific issues you bring up? Thanks, Chris!

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