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A Plea For Bees July 1, 2008

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Dennis vanEngelsdorp shows the importance of bees in our economy and to our health and wholistic well-being.


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What I'd like you to do is, just really quickly, is just, sort of, nod to the person on your right, and then nod to the person on your left. (Laughter) Now, chances are that over the last winter, if you had been a beehive, either you or one of the two people you just nodded at would have died. Now, that's an awful lot of bees. And this is the second year in a row we have lost over 30 percent of the colonies, or we estimate we've lost 30 percent of the colonies over the winter.

Now, that's a lot, a lot of bees, and that's really important. And most of those losses are because of things we know. We know that there are these varroa mites that have introduced and caused a lot of losses, and we also have this new phenomenon, which I talked about last year, Colony Collapse Disorder. And here we see a picture on top of a hill in Central Valley last December. And below, you can see all these out yards, or temporary yards, where the colonies are brought in until February, and then they're shipped out to the almonds. And one documentary writer, who was here and looked at this two months after I was here, described this not as beehives but as a graveyard, with these empty white boxes with no bees left in them.

Now, I'm going to sum up a year's worth of work in two sentences to say that we have been trying to figure out what the cause of this is. And what we know is that it's as if the bees have caught a flu. And this flu has wiped through the population of bees. In some cases, and in fact in most cases in one year, this flu was caused by a new virus to us, or newly identified by us, called Israeli Acute Paralysis virus. It was called that because a guy in Israel first found it, and he now regrets profoundly calling it that disease, because, of course, there's the implication but we think this virus is pretty ubiquitous. It's also pretty clear that the bees sometimes catch other viruses or other flus, and so the question we're still struggling with, and the question that keeps us up at night, is why have the bees suddenly become so susceptible to this flu, and why are they so susceptible to these other diseases? And we don't have the answer to that yet, and we spend a lot of time trying to figure that out. We think perhaps it's a combination of factors. We know from the work of a very large and dynamic working team that, you know, we're finding a lot of different pesticides in the hive, and surprisingly, sometimes the healthiest hives have the most pesticides. And so we discover all these very strange things that we can't begin to understand.

And so this opens up the whole idea of looking at colony health. Now of course, if you lose a lot of colonies, beekeepers can replace them very quickly. And that's why we've been able to recover from a lot of loss. If we lost one in every three cows in the winter, you know, the National Guard would be out. But what beekeepers can do is, if they have one surviving colony, they can split that colony in two. And then the one half that doesn't have a queen, they can buy a queen. It comes in the mail; it can come from Australia or Hawaii or Florida, and you can introduce that queen. And in fact, America was the first country that ever did mail-delivery queens and in fact, it's part of the postal code that you have to deliver queens by mail in order to make sure that we have enough bees in this country. If you don't just want a queen, you can buy, actually, a three-pound package of bees, which comes in the mail, and of course, the Postal Office is always very concerned when they get, you know, your three-pound packages of bees. And you can install this in your hive and replace that dead-out. So it means that beekeepers are very good at replacing dead-outs, and so they've been able to cover those losses. So even though we've lost 30 percent of the colonies every year, the same number of colonies have existed in the country, at about 2.4 million colonies.

Now, those losses are tragic on many fronts, and one of those fronts is for the beekeeper. And it's really important to talk about beekeepers first, because beekeepers are among the most fascinating people you'll ever meet. If this was a group of beekeepers, you would have everyone from the card-carrying NRA member who's, you know, live free or die, to the, you know, the self-expressed quirky San Francisco backyard pig farmer. (Laughter) And you get all of these people in the same room, and they're all engaged and they're getting along, and they're all there because of the passion for bees. Now, there's another part of that community which are the commercial beekeepers, the ones who make their livelihood from beekeeping alone. And these tend to be some of the most independent, tenacious, intuitive, you know, inventive people you will ever meet. They're just fascinating. And they're like that all over the world.

I had the privilege of working in Haiti just for two weeks earlier this year. And Haiti, if you've ever been there, is just a tragedy. I mean, there may be 100 explanations for why Haiti is the impoverished nation it is, but there is no excuse to see that sort of squalor. But you meet this beekeeper, and I met this beekeeper here, and he is one of the most knowledgeable beekeepers I've ever met. No formal education, but very knowledgeable. We needed beeswax for a project we were working on; he was so capable, he was able to render the nicest block of beeswax I have ever seen from cow dung, tin cans and his veil, which he used as a screening, right in this meadow. And so that ingenuity is inspiring.

We also have Dave Hackenberg, who is the poster child of CCD. He's the one who first identified this condition and raised the alarm bells. And he has a history of these trucks, and he's moved these bees up and down the coast. And a lot of people talk about trucks and moving bees, and that being bad, but we've done that for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used to move bees up and down the Nile on rafts, so this idea of a movable bee force is not new at all. And one of our real worries with Colony Collapse Disorder is the fact that it costs so much money to replace those dead-out colonies. And you can do that one year in a row, you may be able to do it two years in a row. But if you're losing 50 percent to 80 percent of your colonies, you can't survive three years in a row. And we're really worried about losing this segment of our industry.

And that's important for many fronts, and one of them is because of that culture that's in agriculture. And these migratory beekeepers are the last nomads of America. You know, they pick up their hives; they move their families once or twice in a year. And if you look at Florida, in Dade City, Florida, that's where all the Pennsylvania beekeepers go. And then 20 miles down the road is Groveland, and that's where all the Wisconsin beekeepers go. And if you're ever in Central Valley in February, you go to this caf

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Michael Pritchard: Michael Pritchard TED Talk

February 24, 2012 (about 8 years ago)

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A Plea For Bees- July 1, 2008

- Dennis vanEngelsdorp
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