Molière’s bumblebees

Who ever would have thought that one day we’d be worrying parasites and diseases affecting the humble bee? We are though. An agricultural scientist in Minnesota whose main field of interest is hazelnuts, chestnuts and other permacrops had a short note on his Facebook page this morning about the problem.

The bee problem isn’t new. I wrote a short note a while back about the problems affecting bees. Since then the problems have continued to worsen à la Molière. One thing about the pursuit of science, in general, is that we believe we know a whole lot more than we do. The economist and Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek defined the mission of economics with this thought in mind.

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

We have a good example in the news today about how agricultural scientists attempting to solve the bee shortage problem in England created even greater problems with their solution, to import bumblebees from continental Europe.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 bumblebee colonies are imported into England each year to assist with crop pollination.

For a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology, scientists bought 48 colonies – hives containing up to 100 bees each – from three producers in Europe.

They found 77% had parasites that could infect native bees.

Lead researcher Prof William Hughes, of the University of Sussex, said commercial production and importation of bumblebees had been “going on for decades”.

It isn’t a trivial problem. Vegetable and fruit production in England depends enough bees to pollinate the crops.

“We couldn’t grow tomatoes in this country without these bumblebees,” he [Prof William Hughes] said.

And with the decline in pollinating insects in recent years, food producers are increasingly reliant upon imported bees.

“Over a million colonies are imported globally – it’s a huge trade,” said Prof Hughes.

The problem now, it seems, is that the imported bees were not being inspected properly if at all and that there were no government-imposed regulations on the importation of bees.

Whenever we have problems, of course, we want to solve them. It’s human nature. That, however, brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Molière:

Nearly all men die of their remedies, and not of their illnesses.

Not that we shouldn’t try to solve our problems but be careful, expect frustration and failure, along with the occasional victory.

About Mike
A resident of the “30 square miles surrounded by reality,” I spend most of my time teaching economics and statistics to undergraduate students. I enjoy, naturally, economics and business, but also science (I was once an astronomical observatory assistant), politics, photography, food, travel and sports. Madison has grown quite a bit since 1978 when Governor Lee Dreyfus made that remark. According to Wikipedia, Madison is 67.3 square miles of land and 16 square miles of water. Visit for one of my favorite views of the isthmus. Or, why not come visit us!

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