Colony Collapse Disorder, and Buffers

I just watched a truly horrifying episode of Nature that covered Colony Collapse Disorder, or the sudden disappearance of more than 800,000 of the bee hives in the United States (that’s one third of the total.)

That we truck bees around on semis was surprising. I had no idea. That can’t be good for them at all, and then providing only one source of food? No wonder they’re malnourished.

The really bad news (or maybe the really good news) is that bees are afflicted with an entire host of… well, afflictions. Bacterial infections, fungal infections, malnourishment and viral infections. Something has recently pushed them over the edge, so perhaps if we can find what that one thing is, they’ll be able to start staging a comeback and we can begin working on the other problems.

As always, it’s so frustrating to watch shows like this – I feel so helpless! The pesticides keep pouring onto the land by the billions of gallons-full, and of course the bees ingest it when they collect nectar and pollen. Well, guess what, pesticide-users? Know where that goes? Into the honey that we eat. Not only that, but if the bees die, say goodbye to your bee-pollinated crops, Bucko.

No more fruit. No more veggies. No more nuts.

We’ll have wheat and we’ll have corn and not a whole lot else to eat.

I know it’s no simple thing to just stop using pesticides. I mean, in theory it is – just stop using them – but in practical application the farmers aren’t going to go for it. But this is an epidemic that might overshadow even global warming. Holy shit.

My urge to keep bees is still strong, but it’s been tempered a bit by knowing that they fly up to three miles to gather their nectar – I can’t think of anyplace around here where I could find three square miles with no pesticides in use, including on my grandfather’s farm. Sad. Back in Washington? Yes. Abundant space in some areas – it’s not as big a farming economy on the Western side of the state. (Link about how to help bees: The Bee’s Needs, which contained the following tidbit I hadn’t seen: “Bee a Hive Builder: Building your own bee hive is easy and fun. Creating a wood nest is a good place to start — wood-nesting bees don’t sting! Simply take a non-pressure treated block of wood and drill holes that are 3/32 inch to 5/16 inch in diameter and about 5 inches deep and wait for the bees to arrive.”)

As always, whenever I think about the current state of the environment, I just feel so overwhelmingly sad.

We recently learned about buffer systems in Biology.

Buffers are systems of weak acids and weak bases that work together to keep a pH level within a certain range. There are buffer systems in our stomachs (to keep a very, very low pH,) buffers in our cells (to keep a higher pH) and buffers in nature. Let’s say we add acid to a given buffer system. We can add acid, and add acid, and add acid, seeing only a tiny decrease in pH because the buffer is converting the acid into water or CO2, or whatever that particular buffer system is naturally set up to do. Buffer systems are set up to regenerate themselves to a certain degree through reversible reactions. It’s a genius design.

There comes a point, however, where the buffer is all used up. You’ll see pH levels of 7, 7, 7, 6.9, 6.9, 6.8, 6.8, 6.6, 6.6, 6.6, 6.6 even with large amounts of acid added. Then, suddenly, the buffer zone collapses and you get a huge drop – 5.5, 5.0, 4.7, 4.3, 3.8 and on downwards. Nothing is buffering the effect anymore.

We’ve had a huge buffer zone on this planet since before we’ve been a species. The campfires we had as tribes got easily absorbed into the buffer without so much as a blip on the screen. As we developed agriculture and industry, we dumped more and more into the buffer, but it still kept doing its job. Over the last 60-70 years, we’ve seen more and more warning signs that the buffer system is on the verge of collapse.

Currently? I think our buffer zone is fucked.

Everything is beginning to crash all around us, and really, really fast. Fish populations, bee populations, plant and animal species becoming extinct, butterflies and migrating bird populations decreasing, global warming, stronger hurricanes… everything is rapidly coming to a head, and the majority of people are only now just poking their little prairie dog heads sleepily out of the ground and saying, “Um, what now?”

Keep dumping trash into the ocean, and eventually, it’s going to wash back up on shore. Pour CO2 into the atmosphere and it’s going to end up back in your lungs.

I am so pissed at the world right now that I’m vibrating. It is the nature of all things to change – this I know. But I prefer the natural evolution of things, even when that natural evolution is as violent as a volcano or an earthquake. I refuse to accept the argument that “Man is a part of Nature and therefore everything we do is natural.” That is head-in-the-sand bullshit rhetoric.

The planet will spin on, no doubt, but what if we make it so uninhabitable that it is hell to ride along on it? Is a planet devoid of most of the life forms we know and love and recognize going to be a pleasant place to live?

I believe that we are, right now, at a pivotal moment. This is make-or-break time. Either big changes happen now that start taking us back into the buffer zone, or our symbolic pH level plunges. And the scale doesn’t tip back within the span of our species’ existence.

Then, we will have a series of other pivotal moments, when we lose the sustainability of forests or oceans or breathable air. I think that right now, we have a chance to save it all – the polar bears, the fish, the sharks, the birds, ourselves. What’s gone is gone, but what’s left is at least still recognizable.

I don’t think we have until 2030 to change our ways. Obviously, I’m no scientist, but there is a gut feeling, a palpable urgency, an air of desperation.

When the bees’ hives were torn asunder by hungry bears, their normal buzzing sounds were disrupted. They flew around with high-pitched, spurty, angry bzzz’s that were distinctly distressed and agitated.

The biosphere is making that same sound, but at a deeper level, beyond what we can hear. If you pay attention, though – you can feel it.

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