National Geographic : 2015 May
88 national geographic • may 2015 The Future of Food natgeofood.com This story is part of National Geographic’s Future of Food initiative, a special five-year project that seeks to show how what we eat makes us who we are. rother Adam must have known he had become a beekeeper at an unlucky time. It was 1915, and he was a 16-year-old novice at Buckfast Abbey in southwest England. Rapid bee die-offs have been recorded for centuries, but the catastrophe that confronted the young monk was unprec- edented. A mysterious disease had wiped out almost every apiary on the Isle of Wight and now was devastating the rest of England. Brother Adam found his hives suddenly vacant, bees crawling beneath them, unable to fly. That year he lost 29 of the abbey’s 45 hives. Scientists eventually linked the disease to a previously unknown virus. But the research came too late to save Britain’s native dark brown honeybee. Almost all the surviving hives were hybrids, the progeny of local drones that mated with foreign-bred queens. The apparently supe- rior vigor of these blends made Brother Adam think about breeding a disease-resistant bee. In 1950, after years of preparation, he finally got his chance. Commandeering an old abbey car, he traveled over the next 37 years through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, collecting more than 1,500 queens: the hardworking bees of northern Turkey, the hyper-diverse bees of Crete, the isolated bees of Sahara oases, the deep black bees of Morocco, the tiny orange bees of the Nile, the supposedly placid bees of Mount Kilimanjaro. He took his exotic menagerie to a remote station in the moors, miles from other bees with their unwanted genes. Performing countless breeding tests in pristine solitude, he created the Buckfast bee—a superbee, as it was quickly dubbed. Tan-colored and robust, it was reluctant to sting, zealously productive, and resistant to what had come to be called Isle of Wight disease. By the 1980s Buckfast bees were sold across the world. Bee breeders are rare. Brother Adam had become something even rarer: an apiculture celebrity. But honeybees were again under assault. An Asian mite with the evocative name of Va r r o a destructor had invaded Europe and America. “Only a fully resistant, genetically endowed race or strain,” Brother Adam proclaimed in 1991, will be “the ultimate answer to this menace.” But before he could begin work, Buckfast’s abbot, convinced that Brother Adam’s growing fame conflicted with his vocation, removed him from his post. He died, heartbroken, in 1996. “No- body really took his place at the abbey,” says Clare Densley, who two years ago restarted Buckfast’s storied beekeeping operation. All the while, conditions worsened in Bee- landia. In 2007 reports of “colony collapse disorder”—swift, terrible deaths of entire colo- nies—suddenly mushroomed across Europe and the Americas. News reports called it a “threat to global agriculture” and an “unprecedented catas- trophe for the planet.” The headlines were justi- fied: Insect pollination, mostly from honeybees, is critical to one-third of the world’s food supply. Bee researchers, many inspired by Brother Adam, rushed to understand colony collapse. Most have concluded it is not a single problem, as first thought, but a lethal amalgamation of pests, pathogens, habitat loss, and toxic chemi- cals; varroa mites are a critical component. Most large-scale beekeepers now use pesticides to kill B Charles C. Mann’s latest book is 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Anand Varma, a biologist who raised bees for this story, specializes in photographs that illuminate science.