America Losing its Honey Bees – Science to the Rescue?

The White House has become so worried about the collapse in America’s honey bee population that it has established a team to get to grips with the decline. There seems to be a particular problem of too few bees making it through the winter months compared with the past.

Honey Bee
The Honey Bee

The population fall off last winter was an alarming 23% compared with a normal 10% or so. Some recent years have seen one-third of bees dying.

Foods that depend on the humble bee for pollination include honey (obviously), okra, onions, cashews, celery, brazil nuts, beets, canola oil, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, turnip, peppers, safflower, chestnuts, watermelons, tangerines, coconuts, coffee, cilantro, hazelnuts, cantaloupe melons, cucumber, pumpkins/zucchini/squashes, lemons, limes, carrots, buckwheat, sunflowers, flax, apples, avocados.

Bees pollinate crops each year worth $15 billion in America alone. Worldwide, the value is about $200 billion. Depending on your diet, somewhere around one in three or one in four of every bite of food you eat depends on the efforts of a worker bee. The NRDC says that California’s $2.5 billion almond industry needs half of America’s honey bees.

A variety of causes are blamed for the decline including: pesticides, diminishing genetic diversity, immuno-deficiencies, and parasitic mites.

Another concern is CCD – colony collapse disorder – where the worker bees in a hive suddenly disappear in large numbers. They don’t die, they just disappear. No dead bodies are found. The cause of CCD is unknown, but may be one of the causes mentioned above.

As we mentioned last week, the population of Monarch Butterflies and many other pollinators are also in severe decline in America.

Environmentalists are blaming a group of pesticide chemicals known as neonicotinoids for the bees’ plight. These chemicals have now been banned by the European Union. The American EPA believes, however, that the parasitic mite varroa is the most likely culprit.

Recent Research Suggests Pesticides and Fungicides are Weakening Bees’ Defenses Against Parasites

Jeffery Pettis and other researchers from the University of Maryland and the Department of Agriculture have identified a toxic combination of fungicides and pesticides which is poisoning the pollen bees eat.

To illustrate the effect, they took pollen from bee colonies on the east coast, which were gathering their pollen from crops treated with fungicides and pesticides. They fed the pollen to healthy bees and found these bees became much more vulnerable to parasitic attack. Each sample of pollen was found to be contaminated with an average of nine different agricultural chemicals.

The White House has now instructed the EPA to develop a strategy before the end of 2014 to combat the decline in pollinating insects.

$8 million of government funding will also go to farmers in northern states to establish new habitats for bees.

If the EPA confirms that pesticides and fungicides are to blame for the bee die-off, will any action be taken? Or will it simply be a matter of money. If it will cost more in pest damage to stop using certain chemicals, will the pollinating insects be sacrificed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Personal Action

If you’d like to take individual action to help honey bees, stopping pesticide and fungicide use looks like a good place to start. Then grow plants that provide bees with good sources of pollen and nectar, such as red clover, foxglove, dandelions, alfalfa, and bee balm.


Beating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria – a Breakthrough

Gram-negative bacteria such as those responsible for salmonella, meningitis, heliobacter, legionella, gonorrhea, and cholera cause debilitating diseases and death in people who become infected.

Legionella Pneumophila

Legionella Pneumophila

Worryingly, these bacteria are building ever stronger defenses against our stocks of antibiotic drugs. At some stage, they will become totally resistant to our existing drugs. When this happens, we will enter a nightmarish world in which minor cuts and infections could quickly become fatal.

Gram-negative bacteria have a lipopolysaccharide outer coating whose impermeability assists the bugs in fending off attacks from antibiotics. You could think of this coating as full body-armor.

This coating is called LPS, consisting of lipid A, core polysaccharide, and O antigen. It has been growing increasingly impermeable as bugs follow an evolutionary pathway to defeat our antibiotics. The armor is getting very strong.

The journal Nature has reported that medical researchers from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School in the United Kingdom have found a way to block the pathway the bacteria use to put this outer coating together. One of the lead researchers commented:

‘This is a giant leap forward in the fight against superbugs. This discovery doesn’t come a moment too soon.’

Researchers have discovered that a protein called LptDE is vital in building the bacteria’s LPS outer coating of armor. They are excited by the fact that the same mechanism is used in all gram-negative bacteria.

This means, if you can find a way to disrupt the LPS outer coating being built in one type of gram-negative bacteria, it should work in all such bacteria.

The preferred method of disruption is to find a drug molecule smaller than the LptDE protein that builds the coating. Importantly, this drug molecule would not need to get inside a bacterial cell to disrupt the building of the cell coating.

The weakened cell coating would allow bugs to be attacked more easily both by our immune cell and antibiotic drugs.

Another aspect that makes the work so vital is that it offers a method which can potentially overcome the new strains of superbugs which are causing serious problems in many hospitals. Too many patients are getting ill in the hospitals where they are meant to get better.

Health experts have said that within a decade or two, routine surgical operations could lead to a large number of deaths, because of widespread, untreatable infections. It would be a return to the days when there were no antibiotics and life was something of a lottery.

The work on disrupting the LPS coating is at an early stage, but it’s encouraging that a viable route has now been identified so that we can continue taking the fight to our microscopic enemies.