Animal Diseases: Symptoms of a Sick Planet?

It has been given the name White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a name that almost certainly describes a symptom and not the cause. This new disease of bats has been compared to the growing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in bees, also a term that describes consequences–the best we can do–because we don’t understand why it is happening.

The media compares WNS to CCD which in turn is said to be like the AIDS of bees. There is so much we do not understand. One thing is “like” another. Metaphors give us false comfort. Our problems seem more manageable boiled down to a few letters.

Bats leave their caves too early in winter. They starve to death, their fat reserves burned up too soon. As immune protections weaken, unable to preen, white spores of an opportunistic fungus dusts their noses. Investigators use thermal imagery to study infected caves. Sick bats glow an eerie green, warmed for the last time by insects eaten on the wing months earlier.

WNS is spreading in New York and Vermont where it was first discovered last year. Springtime migration promises to carry it far off to other caves where the tiny flying mammals roost hundreds per square foot.

While it is likely that human cavers (perhaps wearing boots they wore days before in caves on another continent) brought the unknown organism into the first infected caves, the bats will pass it amongst themselves. Several species are already affected, including the endangered Indiana Bat.

Is the comparison of WNS to CCD warranted? Perhaps. CCD was first named in late 2006 so we’d have something to call the complex, alarming and previously unknown condition in the Western Honey Bee. Bees fly off from the hive and never come back.

The insects and other creatures that normally descend on an unprotected colony won’t go near the abandoned hive’s store of tainted honey and wax. At least a quarter of the 2.4 million bee colonies in the United States have disappeared since the fall of 2006. And like the bees from their hives, bats fly away from their warm caves and die. What is going on?

Bee scientists can’t help us much here. There is a fungus, Nosema ceranae and a virus–IAPV– first described in Israel. Persistent new pesticides in widespread agricultural and home use are neurotoxins called neonicitinoids. They produce loss of memory and make insects stop feeding. Are bees collateral damage?

All of these stressors are “associated” with collapsed colonies–white noses, if you will–but none a smoking gun to explain the cause or halt the loss of the the world’s honeybees. Yes, the world. China, Brazil, and at least nine European nations report increasing incidence of CCD.

The so-what? We stand to lose some portion of the enormously undervalued and unappreciated work provided by bees and bats. What happens if bees no longer adequately pollinate fruit, nut and vegetable crops (for humans or wildlife)? And will it matter if bat populations don’t control night-flying, crop-eating moths and beetles or a summer evening’s disease-carrying mosquitos?

Songbirds and salamanders, now bees and bats. It is not just species at risk but orders and classes of plants and animals. Can we continue to assume their colonies can collapse and ours stay habitable?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. The question in my mind is: how long will we watch nature collapsing around us before the human “colony” does the same?

    I’ve been told, however, that I am a big pessimist. I would argue that it’s the pessimists that are typically prepared when it all hits the fan.


  2. (Sigh) been watching both the bats and the bees and feel just sick to think of two such stellar and remarkable species being battered (and possibly wiped out) by disease. A world without bats and honey bees is just too awful to contemplate – I love them both.

  3. This content was cobbled early in the unfolding of WNS when caves found with the condition were also caves frequented by human visitors. Since those early days, infected caves NOT visited by humans have been found. So the term LIKELY was appropriate to our understanding when there was high correlation with human visits and infected caves. That correlation is not so high now, so I would change LIKELY to POSSIBLE.

    And of course, caving organizations realize this potential and are cooperating with efforts to restrict visits to infected or potentially infected caves until we have a better understanding of causes–microbiotic, climatic, biochemical or otherwise.

  4. I’m just a frustrated wannabebeekeeper. I used to live in a neighborhood where I had two neighbors within a block of my backyard who maintained honeybee hives.
    Then I moved and a few years later noticed not any bees around my flowers, and garden and lots of blossoms on my zucchini and tomatoes, but not much fruit setting on. Finally, I decided, even though afraid of beestings, etc. to try my hand at beekeeping. Within a month of purchasing my first hive I had animal control people out twice, police etc. and I still live in the same suburban town! I moved my hive to a friends farm and bought some acreage next too it. I placed my hive near the electric fenced portion of my soon to be owned property. A few weeks after we managed to get the electric fence to work and my bees went nuts. I grew up around electric fences. I would never have located the hive where it was touching the fence yet everyone tried to persuade me that the colony left my hive because it had been eletrified by the fence. So the next year I bought a new queen and starter colony and tried to start over. People tried to tell me that this colony disappeared because I didn’t feed it enough sugar water, etc. I couldn’t buy a new colony last year (2007) because the local company where I purchased my hive and bee colonies went out of business (Mid-Continent) I just learned about neonicitinoids, and the German ban. How bad does it have to get? Autism in children, Alzheimer’s in the aged. We eat food and these products are used on wheat, barley, sugar beets, and farmers don’t even have to use the product the second year and the pesticide doesn’t have to be reapplied-enough remains in the soil to keep the insects away- This stuff affects more than honeybees.