For example, I've noticed for years that every spring, an unintended consequence of riding a bike down a steep hill is swallowing or otherwise doing battle with bees. This year, however, my teeth, bicycle helmet and nostrils have remained totally bee-free. This is troubling.
Second, at least once every spring, my horse spooks and bolts, generally dumping me into a bee-infested desert broom bush. This inevitably causes great personal horror, as it does for anyone who grew up in the generation during which John Belushi dressed up as a giant killer bee on Saturday Night Live. This year, however, the desert brooms are eerily silent.
I've actually started looking for Belushitos, feeling relieved when I hear a buzzing, then disappointed upon realizing it's only flies.
This, according to apiarists nationwide, is the result of something called Colony Collapse Disorder. (Contrary to popular belief, apiarists keep bees, not apes.)
Colony Collapse Disorder has been observed in 22 states nationwide, including Arizona. Bees, it seems, are disappearing. No one quite knows why, but there are several theories vying for attention. One involves the awfulness of Kevin Federline's rap music, another bad vibes from cell phones, and then there's something called "bee rapture." This third seems the most implausible, since clearly, bees are not Saved. There is no record of them ever having gone to church and accepting Jesus Christ as their own personal savior, and though He marks the sparrow's fall, there is nothing in the Bible about Him giving two shits as to whether bees fall into soda cans, set up housekeeping in the rafters of houses or plummet to earth like pollen-encrusted meteorites. Add to this the fact that there are no bumper stickers that say, "In Case of Rapture, This Hive Will Be Empty," and the logic is unassailable.
So what's happening to all the bees? Estimates range from 30 to 70 percent gone, kaput. This absence threatens to castrate food production, since plants, stuck in one place their whole lives and unable to go out to the disco or titty bar, rely on pollination via bees to reproduce.
So much for $1.99-per-flat strawberries at the supermarket anytime soon.
No one seems to be talking about what this absence of bees will do to the rest of the biosphere. Suffice it to say, it ain't going to be pretty.
Other than Federline, there are two plausible theories as to why bees are vanishing. One is the Varroa mite. These little bastards were the cause of bee die-offs during the 1970s and '80s and have been known to decimate both wild and commercial bee populations. But most apiarists claim this recent die-off is worse, and while there is some evidence of mite infestation in some bees, it is not apparent in all of them. Since Varroa mites are endemic, finding them doesn't equal a smoking gun. In addition, scientists at Penn State University point out several differences between this and previous die-offs. Previously, when hives were wiped out by mites, there were dead bees littering the ground outside the hive. This is currently not the case: Bees seem to be flying away from the hive before dying. Also, weakened bee colonies are usually quickly overrun by other colonies or pests scrounging for honey. This time around, it ain't happening. Researchers are also alarmed at the number of foreign fungi, bacteria and random parasites found in dissected bees.
It's as if their immune systems are shutting down.
This may be due to pesticide use. But then again, it may be due to $1.99 flats of strawberries, aka the fact that Americans really like cheap produce.
Commercial beekeepers make dough primarily by delivering pollinators to crop growers. The larger percentage of the industry they service, the more dough they make. This provides a big incentive for commercial beekeepers to provide as many hives as possible to as many customers as possible, wherever they are. Ergo, beekeepers have taken to dividing young hives with immature queens. They're producing more units to lease to growers--but they're also producing extremely stressed hives. This stress weakens individual bee immune systems, which consequently fall victim to every nasty vermin, microscopic and otherwise, that infect bees.
This theory makes the most sense. This is, after all, America, the one nation on Earth where everything, absolutely everything, eventually comes down to dollars, cents and greed. These stressed and failing bees find their way into natural populations, adversely affecting the gene pool, and what have you got? Dead-silent desert broom.
Americans are strung out on big events: terrorist attacks, tsunamis, fires, disease epidemics, wars. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in the end, our demise came on the heels of the disappearance of a creature most of us consider pests?
It's almost funny. Not quite, but almost.