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The Times of India, 24/10/09

Honey, where are the bees?

Miércoles 28 de octubre de 2009 · 1278 lecturas

Honey, where are the bees?
KOUNTEYA SINHA & ARUN RAM TIMES NEWS NETWORK , TOI Crest 24 October 2009, 12:44pm IST

Not so long ago, many communities in India believed that a honeybee buzzing next to one’s ears heralded good news, some said it meant a missive was
on its way. As time went by, cellular phones made that kind of anxious wait redundant. Then, one day, when the bees stopped troubling people, no one noticed it.

Unhappy as it may sound, scientists are now veering towards the belief that bees, which pollinate almost 80 per cent of all fruits and vegetables, have started to disappear. The US, Europe and the UK have been reporting large bee disappearances, posing a direct threat to the survival of thousands of plants used for food, fibers and medicines - a "potential health crisis for the planet" and an already fragile ecosystem. Financially, too, this is worrisome. According to a recent study in the journal Ecological Economics, the worldwide economic value of pollination is estimated at more than $215 billion, or about 9.5 per cent of the total agricultural production.

Frighteningly for India, the crisis may now just be hitting home. Kerala has recorded a similar phenomenon, as have other parts of the country. But what’s causing this bizarre natural phenomenon could have something to do with the way you talk. Researchers investigating the trend say radio frequency radiation RFR) emitted by mobile phones and towers is the real culprit.

Dr Sainuddin Pakattazhy, a zoology expert from S N College, Punalur, said electromagnetic waves emitted by such towers hamper the navigational skills of worker bees that set out to collect nectar. During an experiment, when a cell phone was kept near a bee hive, Pakattazhy noticed that worker bees lost their way, leaving the hives with only the queens and eggs. The result: the colony collapsed within 10 days - a phenomenon many call the ’Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD). German researchers, too, have recorded behavioural changes in bees near mobile towers.

Though theories on the cause of colony collapse blame attack from viruses, mites, pesticides and fungi for it, Pakattazhy’s findings have now given an entirely new dimension to the whole thing. Dr George Carlo, who headed a study by the US government on the hazard from mobile phones, said, "I am convinced the possibility is real." Scientists in India now fear that honeybees in areas densely populated with mobile towers could be wiped out in the next few years.

"We have documented a 60 per cent decrease in the population of honeybees and sparrows in Kerala,’’ Pakattazhy said, darkly. "The implications are alarming. Most of the world’s crops depend on pollination by bees. The demand for crops that rely on insects for pollination has more than tripled over the last half century. Disappearance of honeybees, therefore, could cause considerable stress."

Flower nectar is one of two food sources used by honeybees. The other is pollen, which worker bees gather daily on foraging flights. As bees hunt for nectar, pollen sticks to the tiny hairs covering their bodies. Some of that pollen rubs off on the next flower the bee visits and this fertilizes it, resulting in better fruit production. The bees unload the remaining pollen when they return to the hive, which is stored in the honeycomb , providing protein and other nutrients for future use.

It’s not just bees, though, that may be in trouble. On a pleasant summer morning back in 2004, R K Kohli, a scientist at the Centre for Environment and Vocational Studies , Panjab University, was taking a stroll on the sprawling green campus when a friend threw him a challenge: spot a sparrow, he said. It took Kohli five days to do that. "That’s when I decided to study the reasons for the bird’s disappearance," said Kohli. He looked up literature and found studies in some foreign countries that said electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from cell phone masts could be interfering with the population of some urban birds. He teamed up with V P Sharma, a zoologist in the university, and some others for a comprehensive study on the effect of EMR on birds, bees and plants in 2006. The results, some of which were published in the Journal of Total Environment last month, showed radiation from cell phone towers affected all the forms of lives studied. "In birds, EMR was found to be distorting the development of embryos," Kohli said, adding, "Now we have to see how they get affected at the cellular level." Researchers at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore , say there are enough reasons to attribute bird mortality to these radiations. "Cell phones and towers emit microwaves of very low frequency, of 900 or 1,800 MHz. These can result in thin skulls of chicks and thin egg shells," said Dhanya R, who researches on the impact of modernisation on house sparrows. Earlier studies in Spain and Belgium, too, have established the ill-effects of EMR on birds. Chennai-based zoologist Ranjit Daniels said a combination of factors is responsible for the diminishing population of birds like the house sparrow (Passer domesticus ), red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), brahmini kite (Haliastur indus) and spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) in Indian cities. "Birds are known to be sensitive to magnetic radiation. Migratory birds travel long distances gauging the earth’s magnetic field. Microwaves from cell phone towers can interfere with birds’ sensors and misguide them while navigating and preying," Daniels said. In fact, some studies on EMR predict total extinction of sparrows in Valladolid, Spain, by 2020. "In the 77-sq km city of Chandigarh, there were 199 mobile phone towers at the beginning of the study,’’ said Kohli. "Now the city has about 280. There are four towers on our university campus alone. It’s like getting microwaved minus the heat."

THE BUZZ AIN’T GOOD

Globally, there has been an alarming drop in the honeybee population. But there isn’t any clear explanation as to why they are dying in such large numbers

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has affected over 36 states in the US, as well as Europe, South America and China. Theories on the cause of bee colony collapse include attacks from viruses, mites, pesticides, fungi, and now mobile phone towers

The US has lost 35 per cent of its bee population, and is losing eight per cent more every year
Honeybees are predicted to be extinct in the US by 2035, just from loss of habitat, pesticides and parasites. After CCD, it’s likely to happen much sooner

In 1960, beekeepers were charging $3 per hive. By 2004, the figure stood at $60. But due to CCD, it is $180 per hive in the US currently In 2006, US beekeepers had to import bees for the first time in 80 years

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