Canaries in The Coal Mine?

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Talking with your children about the birds and the bees has become considerably more troublesome in recent months.

All euphemisms aside, something unpleasant is happening to these cheerful denizens of our backyards. As of last fall, swarms of honeybees have disappeared in a mysterious and widespread epidemic that poses a grave threat to the future of pollinator-dependent agriculture. Bird deaths are also on the rise, with reports of unusual die-offs occurring across diverse species and distant locales. In both cases, scientists are struggling to understand what is behind the alarming phenomena.

Culprits from parasites and pesticides to climate change and cell phones have been suggested as causes of the honeybee plague, yet no single theory fits every scenario. The epidemic was first recognized in November of 2006 by a Pennsylvania beekeeper overwintering his colonies in Florida. Soon, commercial hives across the country began to experience dramatic losses with some apiarists reporting 90% of their bees missing. Dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) the syndrome has since spread to 27 states and has been reported in Britain, Brazil and across Europe.

Although populations of honeybees and other insect pollinators have declined steadily over the past decade, there is typically an identifiable cause at the root of the problem. Heavy losses in recent years have been attributed to the parasitic varroa mite, an increasing menace to apiculture.

This season, the situation is much different. The bees are simply gone, presumably rendered disoriented by an unknown agent and left to die. No bodies lie about the hives, which are eerily deserted save for the queen, brood, and the occasional drone. The plentiful honey that normally attracts plundering insects and animals to an abandoned hive remains strangely untouched, suggesting the presence of some repellent toxin.

Those bees that have been recovered are overrun by a startling array of pathogens, prompting some researchers to draw comparisons between CCD and AIDS. Equally troubling is the quickness in which a healthy colony can be struck down and swept clean by the disorder, sometimes within a few days’ time.

And then there’s the staggering numbers: at last count, bee losses in the U.S. alone have hit the tens of billions mark.

As many journalists are quick to point out, this portends big trouble for farmers that rely almost entirely on imported honeybees to pollinate their crops. Suburban sprawl has encroached upon much of the land surrounding modern farms, cutting off flowering plants from native communities of pollen-toting insects. In a gross abstraction of natural processes, the country’s largest apiarists have become pollinators-for-hire, hauling their buzzing freight vast distances on flatbed trucks. The attendant fuel costs narrow the beekeepers’ margins for profit, while the added stress of interstate transportation takes its toll on the fragile bees. In the wake of CCD, many beleaguered beekeepers face almost certain collapse along with their colonies, raising serious questions about the future of food production in the years to come.

An estimated 30% of the American diet depends on these overworked insects, including many high-dollar harvests like California’s lucrative almond crop. Enormous sums of money are at stake without the honeybees’ indispensable service. Not surprisingly, it was the economic implications of the pandemic that first made ripples in the press, with media giants like CNN initially relegating news of the vanishing bees to the financial pages.

Mainstream coverage of the escalating crisis has been conspicuously absent, and many Americans still know nothing of the problem. Only in the last weeks have publications like Time and USA Today made serious mention of the disorder, nearly six months after its emergence. For a situation with such far-reaching and imminent consequences to remain out of the public discourse for this long is truly disturbing.

And then, there are the birds.

Granted, their predicament does not seem as immediately dire as that of the honeybees, nor are they responsible for fertilizing our food supply. Yet the past year has seen a spate of unprecedented die-offs across a broad range of bird species that has experts genuinely worried.

There are few common denominators present in these latest bird deaths, so no symptomatic pattern has yet been proposed to qualify them. Instead, what seems to link these bizarre occurrences, aside from a temporal connection, is a shared vocabulary of abnormality across various news articles.

In March of 2006, the “highly unusual” discovery of 15 flamingo carcasses baffled officials on the Caribbean island of Inagua.

The bodies of over 1,600 shearwaters littered the beaches of Unalaska last September in a sudden event of mass mortality. As local seabird researcher Art Sowls oberved: "It's not unusual to have birds dying, but to have hundreds or thousands of them dying is unusual."

That same month, gardens in England saw a “dramatic increase in the number of finch mortality incidents

“It is an unusually large outbreak,” noted bird conservationist Andre Farrar, indicating an especially virulent parasite at fault in the finch plague. Expressions of extreme concern are echoed among scientists and bureaucrats alike throughout numerous accounts.

Spanning disparate ecosystems and species, the avian die-offs resist causal associations and thus remain isolated events in their reporting. Many of the articles are presented as “news-of-the-weird” or local interest stories in small-town papers, garnering little attention outside of their provincial distribution.

But when juxtaposed and examined as a larger phenomenon, a salient thread becomes apparent: birds are dying under unusual circumstances, and in alarming numbers, across the globe

Unfortunately, 2007 has not proven much better for our feathered friends. A massive die-off of nearly 5,000 birds struck Esperance, Australia during the first days of January, with some simply dropping from the sky and others witnessed convulsing and vomiting as they expired. Coincidentally, that same week the carcasses of dozens of sparrows, grackles, and pigeons fell scattered about a downtown block of Austin, Texas, prompting the National Guard to lockdown the busy area as a potential terrorist threat.

Researchers rebuffed early suggestions by some journalists that linked the distant events, citing the birds’ dissimilar diets as ruling out a common cause. But a similarly abnormal die-off of California seabirds in March involved 14 separate varieties with distinct patterns of eating, all afflicted in the same way.

The casualties continue to mount: 500 Costa Rican pelicans dead within five days; 3,000 bird bodies outside of Valencia, Spain; hundreds of diseased sparrows and pigeons in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the Austin incident, 850 mallards in Denver fell victim to the “only mass duck die-off of its kind nationally.”

What is also surprising about these mortalities is the absence of such notorious bird scourges as the West Nile virus or the dreaded H5N1 avian flu strain, which continues to decimate poultry farms across Asia. Given the potential for human infection associated with these diseases, specimens in the peculiar deaths are immediately collected for analysis. In most cases, the results have come back negative.

The current rash of bird deaths, some researchers believe, points instead to toxic changes in the environment capable of wiping out entire flocks at once. In some instances, necropsies reveal birds teeming with pathogens and parasites. Others seem to have simply starved to death, signaling a sudden food scarcity due perhaps to extreme weather. Pesticides are implicated, as are industrial pollutants like mercury and lead. No single factor appears dominant across the multitude of events.

In a rather curious parallel, the birds seem to be falling prey to a confluence of lethal agents in much the same way as the honeybees.

At present, the consensus among CCD investigators is for not one, but several factors complicit in the disorder. The bees appear to have reached a tipping point, collapsing under the combined stress of a host of hostile elements. This has made the task of solving the honeybee mystery quite daunting for scientists. Even the methods of beekeeping employed across the affected colonies vary significantly, further complicating a coherent diagnosis.

Recent reports of massive honeybee losses in Taiwan and Canada have yet to be included in the list of CCD cases, as officials are loath to draw a connection to the syndrome ravaging American colonies. Researchers in these countries instead cite extreme weather as the perceived cause of their own insect disappearances. Adding to the puzzle, some Canadian apiarists report finding their bees dead within the hives rather than merely missing. Some anecdotal evidence just emerging suggests a similarly catastrophic loss of native bee species this season, bridging wide gaps in lifestyle and environment among possible CCD casualties. It may soon pass that the definition of Colony Collapse Disorder will be revised to incorporate additional anomalies in a broadening picture of apicultural devastation. It is too early to gauge the full impact of this incipient, frightening pandemic, and most researchers agree, the time to solve the problem is running out.

A quote associated with Albert Einstein has been bandied about in the media lately:

  • "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

The crucial link between human existence and the humble bee is finally coming into the public consciousness – perhaps as a tragic afterthought. Only last October, scientists in Myanmar unearthed an amber-encased specimen of an ancient relative to the modern Apis mellifera dating back 100 million years — almost three times as old as previous finds. The busy bee, it appears, has been hard at work since the reign of the dinosaurs. Around the same time as the fossil discovery, a project mapping the honeybee genome revealed a conspicuous lack of genes to ward off disease and flush out toxins. Absent these expected biological defenses, researchers believe the enigmatic insect has "yet undiscovered ways of staying healthy."

As concern for the fate of the honeybee grows, scientists have taken to referring to this incredibly complex and delicate creature as the “canary in the coal mine” for the planet – an early warning signal for ecological disaster.

The canary trope has also been applied to dolphins and amphibians, both animals that are highly susceptible to environmental disruptions and themselves experiencing substantial die-offs and extinctions.

Birds, of course, are the global canaries by default.

The alarm has been raised. It’s time to stop digging and start looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.


-S. Corey Thomas


Attached: "The Birds and the Bees: A Collection of Recent Reports of Unusual Die-offs"

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