albert einstein is said to have said: "If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years." The
physicist wasn't entirely off the mark--provided he did make this comment, which is reproduced worldwide by apiculture lobbyists, though there is no
evidence to show that Einstein actually made this statement.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera to the zoologically inclined) have not gone extinct. Not yet, anyway. Their populations are declining sharply (while humans continue to reproduce prolifically). Fewer honeybees means not just less honey but also less food--just in the us, honeybees are critical to pollinating up to 95 crops.
Commercial beekeepers and scientists are a worried lot. The latest decline in the us was noticed in late 2006 in Florida. Official estimates say about 30-90 per cent of bee colonies got mysteriously wiped out. "The queen bee usually remained in the hives surrounded by untended brood, while others abandoned," says Diana Cox-Foster, entomologist at the Pennsylvania State University.
A variety of pathogens are known to infest the bee colonies. To control these, beekeepers use chemicals, which might be also affecting the bees. Low doses of nicotine-based chemicals, used in seed dressing for horticultural crops, affect the bees' navigation skills. High doses of the insecticide imidacloprid, used to treat sunflower seeds, also affect them. After 40 per cent of its bee colonies were destroyed in 1999, France banned imidacloprid.
Ten years ago, India faced a similar decline, which was later linked to a viral disease. After coffee growers complained of crop failure this year, scientists are studying the native honeybee (Apis cerana). "Coffee heavily depends on honeybees for pollination. We are looking at all aspects related to the crop failure, along with the chances of honeybee decline," says M Soubadra Devy, fellow of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, a Bangalore-based ngo.
Scientists are yet to figure out the exact cause of the problem. Just the international pollination industry is worth us $ 40 to 100 billion. What is also at stake is the world's honey and food crops.
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