The ballad of slumgum and foulbrood

Is Australia getting a bad rap for honeybee woes? What about Chinese royal jelly and the World Trade Organization?

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 10, 2007 10:43PM (UTC)
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Warning: The following post references honeybee semen, Chinese royal jelly, American foulbrood, slumgum, "the frequent peregrinations of American beekeepers," the World Trade Organization and the first flight by the Wright Brothers. Proceed at your own risk.

I received an e-mail Monday morning from James Fischer, a beekeeper, honey-harvesting entrepreneur, and aggressive chronicler of all things bee-related for Bee Culture (the Magazine of American Beekeeping) and the American Bee Journal.

(Bee Culture Magazine, incidentally, has been published since its inception by Root Candles, a candle-making concern founded by one Amos Ives Root in the late 19th century. I feel compelled to note that Root claimed to have written the first published account of the initial flight of the Wright Brothers.)

Fischer has been chasing the Colony Collapse Disorder story, he says, since 2002, when he predicted that the relaxation of inspection procedures and import restrictions on live bees could lead to a future catastrophe. Fischer's most recent articles, available online and scheduled to be published in the October issue of Bee Culture, take caustic issue with the theory, reported in Science last week, that a virus found in imported Australian bees may be responsible for the mysterious deaths of millions of American bees.

Bee massacre aficionados are encouraged to read his critique of the research presented in Science and make their own conclusions. Of interest here is that, while I joked last week in my headline that "free trade" might be killing the honeybees, the trade angle to this story should not be ignored.

According to Fischer:

In 2004, World Trade Organization rules forced the USA to abandon its long-standing prohibition on imports of live bees without permits and a quarantine period. Under the WTO, bees are "goods," no different from TVs or steel girders. So, beekeepers could buy bees from the other side of the planet. Why would anyone do that? In a word, "almonds."Almond trees bloom in February in California. That's too early for any but the strongest overwintered hives. Some hives die every year from a variety of causes, mostly all the other invasive pests and diseases that have arrived from overseas in the past 20 years. So, bees from south of the equator on the other side of the planet, where it is summer, are sold to replace hives that have died, or to expand hive numbers to keep up with the ever-increasing acreage planted with almond trees.

While searching for background on WTO-mandated honeybee trade liberalization, I found a Federal Register document published by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service, explaining its decision, in 2004, to allow the import of honeybees and honeybee semen from New Zealand and Australia to the United States. According to APHIS, the decision was made to make honeybee regulations "more consistent with international standards, update them to reflect current research and terminology, and simplify them and make them more useful."

(Incidentally, this Federal Register document contains more information about honeybee regulation and associated matters than I, certainly, ever expected to be confronted with in my lifetime. First of all, props go to the unnamed government bureaucrat who poetically explained the lack of intrastate honeybee regulation in the United States as owing to the uncontrollable "peregrinations of American beekeepers." Second, I now know (and cherish the knowledge) that "American foulbrood is the only bee malady that we are aware of that can be transmitted in beeswax that has been liquefied or in honey." Third, I am, perhaps perversely, also delighted to learn that there is such a thing as "slumgum" -- defined as being "composed of beeswax mixed with debris or refuse that accumulates when wax cappings or comb are melted and may include wax moth cocoons, dead bees, bee parts, and other detritus from the colony.")

So: The decision to loosen trade barriers blocking the importation of live bees (and honeybee semen!) clearly creates the possibility that trade liberalization played a role in the outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder. But Fischer is fairly vehement that Australian bees are getting a bad rap. Fischer provides an alternate hypothesis.

Chinese royal jelly

Reports Fischer:

Royal Jelly is another name for "brood food," fed to bee larvae by adult bees. China has always been the biggest supplier of this substance, as it is very labor-intensive to scoop tiny amounts of it out of brood cells, and China specializes in low-cost, labor-intensive operations like these. Some queen producers buy royal jelly from China, as it is cheaper to buy it from China than to take the time and effort to collect it from their own bee hives. They use it in queen breeding. They sell the queens to beekeepers all over the U.S. Two of four samples of Chinese royal jelly were found by the [Science-published] researchers to contain evidence of the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus.

So, it is just as possible that queen producers in both the U.S. and Australia infected their queens with royal jelly from China as it might be that the U.S. was infected by bees shipped from Australia. But somehow, Australia alone is blamed.

How the World Works will not speculate as to why Chinese royal jelly has not received more attention. I can only promise that now that trade liberalization, low-cost Chinese labor, and Californian nuts have become integral parts of the disappearing American honeybee narrative, my intent to follow this story wherever it goes has blossomed from mere curiosity to potentially unhealthy obsession.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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