Saturday, June 2, 2007

La Sfera Di Confuscione

We are playing a game right now, you and I. Have you figured out the rules yet?

Global Warming. It's An Inconvenient Truth. Right-wing nutjobs aside, pretty much everyone who isn't a Creationist should by now be a believer in this phenomenon. Everyone gets it now. Greenhouse gases, CO2 emissions, carbon credits, Kyoto, recycling, &c. Probably not enough is being done, but everyone is either doing something, or feeling guilty about it.

What really ices my cream, though, what keeps creeping up on me from the back of my head and giving me the heebie-jeebies is this whole bee thing.

In case you've been living under a rock, honey bees are snuffing it at an alarming rate. The consensus appears to be that these little guys are the last canary in the coalmine, that this sudden die-off is a harbinger of global climate collapse.

It seems that certain annual losses in bee population (among the domesticated bees at any rate) are to be expected, but the losses over the last winter are all out of proportion. A significant percentage of the world's bee population is dying or disappearing, and no one knows why. Disease? Mites? Global Warming? Cell phones?

"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." -- Albert Einstein
In four years.

Okay, so now that you've got the heebie-jeebies as well, allow me to place myself in opposition to the general stance the media has so far taken on this issue, and actually talk some sense. Now I'm not an expert (big surprise), but here's what the experts have to say (for much more detail, I refer you to the all-knowing Wikipedia):

1) There are some 20,000 species of bees in the world, and many thousands more of pollinating insects. What we're hearing about, called "colony collapse disorder", affects one species of bee – the European honey bee. That species happens to be the one that global agriculture relies upon for about 30% of its pollination requirements. So while we're not talking about losing all the world's pollinators, we are talking about losing a significant fraction of them. That's the worst-case scenario, with the species wiped out completely.

2) The "significant percentage" of failing hives is still a drop in the bucket when viewed against the global population of honey bees, and there are lots of beekeepers (even in the U.S., which appears hardest hit) who have not had, and may never have, significant losses of colonies.

3) It's almost impossible to get hard numbers on how many colonies have died recently, and how much of the current uproar is media hype based on guesses, estimates and anecdotal accounts from the handful of beekeepers who have had the most colony losses. If you talk to other beekeepers, most admit they have colonies die off every winter, but they don't always keep records on how many. A lot of the reports are based on personal recollection rather than careful documentation. In other words, the scary figures you're hearing could be exaggerated.

4) It's never a good idea to trust what the media are telling you (and that goes double for everything in this blog). At least once in the present case the media got something completely wrong and created a huge mess: The story about cell phones was basically a misrepresentation of what one pair of reporters wrote about a study that they misinterpreted. In a nutshell, the original research didn't involve cell phones, and had nothing to do with colony die-offs.

Even details like that alleged Einstein quote are dubious. No one has yet found proof that Einstein said anything of the sort. The earliest documented appearance of the "quote" is 1994 and, yes, Albert was dead at the time.

All of this is very reassuring, and helps me sleep at night, but it bears a striking resemblance to the head-in-the-sand philosophy of the U.S. administration's (until recently) official stance on Global Warming. And we know where that got us.

One interesting thing about bees is that one of the ways in which they defend the hive is to engulf the invader in a living ball of buzzing, whirring defenders and cook it to death using their own body heat.

Bees Disappearing? Global Warming? Do I really need to draw you a frickin' picture?

0 uninformed opinions: