Can 'super-bees' solve the world's food crisis?
The honeybees who pollinate our crops are disappearing, but researchers are trying to breed survivor insects to carry on
Honeybees are dying off, and scientists aren't entirely sure why. Since we depend on the bees to pollinate our crops, their disappearance could be catastrophic, exacerbating a worsening food crisis. Researchers at Canada's University of Manitoba are trying to help by creating super-bees that can survive conditions normal bees can't. Here, a brief guide:
Bees are dying off?Big time. A baffling phenomenon known as "Colony Collapse Disorder" began decimating honeybee populations in 2006. Mites and viruses have contributed to the die-off, but scientists cite plenty of other culprits, including pesticides, climate change, and even cell phone use.
How many dead bees are we talking about?Scientists have tallied the disappearance of 85 percent of all bees in the Middle East, up to 30 percent of those in Europe, and more than 30 percent of American bees.
So how exactly does one create a super-bee?First, the researchers are collecting queen bees from hives that have proven exceptionally resistant to mites. The queens taken from these hives are then placed in new hives, exposing them to even more "disease pressure." The theory is that each generation of survivors will be hardier than the last.
Does this really work?It is certainly an effective way to separate strong bees from the weak ones. The mite-resistant super-bees are also less susceptible to other threats, such as cold. Only 46 percent of normal European honeybees typically survive through winter, but the supercharged bees have a 75 percent survival rate.
Why is it this so important?Of the 100 crops that provide nearly all of the world's food, bees pollinate 70. That amounts to $83 billion worth of fruits and vegetables a year. High fuel costs and other factors have already driven up food prices enough to provoke riots in 2008. The prospect of a drop in the food supply due to the bee die-off could make matters far, far worse.
So will super-bees save us from disastrous food shortages?"Mite-resistant bees are probably not the panacea to our bee crisis," says Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company. But "at the very least," Schwartz says, "breeding better bees may give us time to figure out more of the reasons that the pollinators are disappearing — before it's too late."