It turns out that Colony Collapse Disorder wasn’t made up for Arrested Development; it’s actually happening across the USA and Europe. Bill Turnbull, according to his BBC Breakfast colleagues, is obsessed by the industrious insects, and having been a bee keeper for 12 years he investigated for Horizon.
He was a good choice of presenter, as he so obviously cares – at one point his voice almost cracked as he talked about mass bee death and, on the other end of the scale, he was obviously bursting with pride about the honey from his own colonies. The sorrowful piano soundtrack underscoring lines like “the bees didn’t survive the winter” was verging on the too sentimental, but for most of the programme we were in the pleasingly unemotional realm of scientific investigation.
You might wonder why we should care about bees – Bill wasted no time demonstrating to us that they’re vital in food production. His BBC colleagues gathered for their usual pre-show breakfast, but one without any bee input, and it turns out that no bees would equal a breakfast of just toast and black tea. “No butter,” said a smug Bill, “no milk, no fruit and absolutely no tomatoes – they’re pollinated by bees.” What a boring world we’d live in without them.
To the question “what’s killing our bees?” Beekeeper Bill offered three answers: the Varroa mite, which spreads viruses that could impair a bee’s navigational ability; pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, which could also impair navigation; and, finally, the human impact on the bee’s habitat.
He visited various experiments where scientists were tracking bees that were diseased or bees that had ingested pesticides and comparing them against healthy bees. They used radar dishes and small antenna attached to the bees’ back and we saw that unhealthy ones weren’t so good at finding their way back to the hive. These insects, we learned, map their surroundings and navigate using the sun. They can even explain to each other where to find the good pollen by using amazingly complex thorax shaking routines. These vital abilities are adversely affected by neonicotinoids which were, at this point, the baddies of the show.
Why didn’t the UK support a ban, then? Beekeeper Bill, being balanced and fair, listened to the arguments in favour of continuing to use these pesticides – neonicotinoids are vital for protecting crop yields and there isn’t enough evidence, yet, to show that the volume of pesticide a bee would ingest in the wild is harmful. Also, things aren’t very straight forward as France has had a ban in place for a decade, and the decline in the bee population has continued, while Australia uses neonics but its bee population has remained steady.
At the end of the episode we looked at the final reason for Bee-Geddon: humans. It always boils down to us. Agriculture, as it is now, leads to “green desserts”; areas that look fertile and healthy but are actually poor habitats for bees. Beekeeper Bill offered two solutions; flower strips breaking up farm land, or tampering with natural environmental devices for repelling pests, both of which seem logical and doable. But either way, we’re still here, and we’re still interfering and the BBC Breakfast crew still wants its breakfast.