It sounds like the start of a Kurt Vonnegut novel:
“Nobody worried all that much about the loss of a few animal species here and there until one day the bees came to their senses and decided to quit producing an unnaturally large surplus of honey for our benefit. One by one, they went on strike and flew off to parts unknown.”
Among the various mythologies of the apocalypse, fear of insect plagues has always loomed larger than fear of species loss. But this may change, as a strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time. It has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, by the apiculturalists and apiarists who are scrambling to understand and hopefully stop it. First reported last autumn in the U.S., the list of afflicted countries has now expanded to include several in Europe, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, and possibly Canada. (1)(24)(29)
Apparently unknown before this year, CCD is said to follow a unique pattern with several strange characteristics. Bees seem to desert their hive or forget to return home from their foraging runs. The hive population dwindles and then collapses once there are too few bees to maintain it. Typically, no dead bee carcasses lie in or around the afflicted hive, although the queen and a few attendants may remain.
The defect, whatever it is, afflicts the adult bee. Larvae continue to develop normally, even as a hive is in the midst of collapse. Stricken colonies may appear normal, as seen from the outside, but when beekeepers look inside the hive box, they find a small number of mature bees caring for a large number of younger and developing bees that remain. Normally, only the oldest bees go out foraging for nectar and pollen, while younger workers act as nurse bees caring for the larvae and cleaning the comb. A healthy hive in mid-summer has between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.
Perhaps the most ominous thing about CCD, and one of its most distinguishing characteristics, is that bees and other animals living nearby refrain from raiding the honey and pollen stored away in the dead hive. In previously observed cases of hive collapse (and it is certainly not a rare occurrence) these energy stores are quickly stolen. But with CCD the invasion of hive pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle is noticeably delayed. (2)
Among the possible culprits behind CCD are: a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, a pesticide (or combination of pesticides), GMO crops bearing pesticide genes, erratic weather, or even cell phone radiation. “The odds are some neurotoxin is what’s causing it,” said David VanderDussen, a Canadian beekeeper who recently won an award for developing an environmentally friendly mite repellent. Then again, according to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the top bee specialist with the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture, “We are pretty sure, but not certain, that it is a contagious disease.” Their comments notwithstanding, most scientists are unwilling to say they understand the problem beyond describing its outward appearance. Perhaps a government or UN task force would be a good idea right about now. (3)(25)
According to an FAQ published on March 9, 2007 by the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group based primarily at Penn State University, the first report of CCD was made in mid-November 2006 by Dave Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper overwintering his 2900 hives in Florida. Only 1000 survived. Soon other migratory beekeepers reported similar heavy losses. Subsequent reports from beekeepers painted a picture of a marked increase in die-offs, which led to the present concern among bee experts. (2)
The name CCD was invented by vanEngelsdorp and his colleagues at Penn State. It reflects their somewhat medical view of the situation. The BBC suggested in a sub-headline to a story on CCD that the problem would be more aptly named the “vanishing bee syndrome.” This proposal may have merit, considering how mass opinion polls influence policy these days. (4)
News of the CCD problem hit all of the major media networks in February 2006. A widely run Associated Press story said reports of unusual colony deaths have come in from at least 22 states, and that some commercial beekeepers reported losing more than half of their bees. The same story informed that autopsies of CCD bees showed higher than normal levels of fungi, bacteria and other pathogens, as well as weakened immune systems. It appears as if the bees have got the equivalent of AIDS. (5)
An April 15, 2007 story in The Independent reported that the west coast of the U.S. may have lost 60% of its commercial bee population, with an even greater 70% loss on the east coast. The same story said that one of London’s biggest bee-keepers recently reported 23 of his 40 hives empty. But, the U.K. Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was quoted as saying, “There is absolutely no evidence of CCD in the UK.” (6)
One must wonder where the truth lies considering the level of sensationalism prevalent in the British press. Case in point, this same story (among several others, to be fair) attributes a juicy but dubious quote to Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” (6)(7)
Einstein, in all likelihood, never said that, but if he did, it is a justifiable exaggeration. Bees certainly are important, and it will get ugly if we lose them. “It’s not the staples,” said Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that’s what it would be like” without honeybee pollination. (8)
The beekeeping industry underpins the American agricultural industry to the tune of $US 15 billion or more. The picture is similar in many countries, especially in the West. Honey bees are used commercially to pollinate about one third of crop species in the U.S. This includes almonds, broccoli, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries. Other insects, including other kinds of bees, may be used to pollinate some of these crops, but only bees are reliable on a commercial scale. If the bees go, we will see a change for the worse at our local supermarkets. (1)
Of course everyone is hoping for a quick solution to appear, and tantalizing reports have emerged. Recent military research at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center claims to have narrowed the likely cause of CCD to a virus, a micro-parasite or both. This work used a new technology called the Integrated Virus Detection System (IVDS), which can rapidly screen samples for pathogens.
These virus laden samples were sent to UC San Francisco, where a suspicious fungus was also discovered in them, suggesting the possibility that the fungus is either an immunosuppressive factor or the fatal pathogen that kills the bees. These “highly preliminary” findings were announced in an April 25, 2007 Los Angeles Times story with the headline, “Experts may have found what’s bugging the bees.” The story called it “the first solid evidence pointing to a potential cause,” and even noted that “there is reason to believe this fungus can be controlled by the antibiotic fumagillin.” (10) (25)
One wonders why the trade name of a pesticide made it into such a story, but the presence of pathogens in bees should come as no surprise to anyone who has been keeping up to date on bee health. Nearly all beekeepers use a variety of chemical and pesticide treatments on their hive boxes out of sheer necessity. A pantheon of mites, fungi and microbes prey on bees. These pests are predictably developing resistance to the chemical treatments we use to fight them. If the new IVDS results are conclusive and lead to a silver bullet solution, that will be wonderful, but such a simple model of CCD is unlikely to be the real key to saving our prime pollinators. (9)
It is worth noting that, while CCD has been presented to the media as a sudden new problem, these same theories about causative infections have already been presented to explain previous bee die-offs, especially those in the spring of 2005, which were attributed to the now infamous varroa mite, a.k.a. “vampire mite,” which began infecting American honey bees in 1987. (31)
About the size of a pinhead, and with eight legs, it feeds on the blood of adult bees like a tick, and even worse, it also eats the bee larvae. Varroa is the bane of beekeepers everywhere except China, where it originated, and the honey bees have local resistance. In a case of sadly ironic timing, Hawaii just reported its first case of varroa a few weeks ago. (26)
LiveScience senior writer, Robert Roy Britt wrote in a May, 2005 story about the mite: “Up to 60 percent of hives in some regions have been wiped out. Entire colonies can collapse within two weeks of being infested. North Carolina fears it is on the verge of an agricultural crisis. No state is immune.” (11)
A Science Daily story dated May 18, 2005, and sourced to Penn State, purported to explain why varroa was so bad. Entitled, “Bee Mites Suppress Bee Immunity, Open Door for Viruses and Bacteria,” it explained research into levels of ‘deformed wing virus,’ a mutagenic pathogen that is believed to persist in bee populations because it makes guard bees more aggressive. Bees of a given hive normally carry low levels of this virus, but the Penn State researchers found that virus levels shot sky high during secondary infections if, and only if, the bees also had varroa mites. It should be clear why the varroa mite is on everyone’s list of things to examine in the fight against CCD. (12)
Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist and part-time organic beekeeper from Prince Edward Island. She has twice run for a seat in Ottawa’s House of Commons, making strong showings around 5% for Canada’s fledgling Green Party. She is also leader of the provincial wing of her party. In a widely circulated email, she wrote:
I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies. (13)
Her email recommends a visit to the Bush Bees Web site at bushfarms.com. Here, Michael Bush felt compelled to put a message to the beekeeping world right on the top page:
Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I’m happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won’t hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.
This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I’ve gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren’t aware, and I wasn’t for a long time, the foundation in common usage results in much larger bees than what you would find in a natural hive. I’ve measured sections of natural worker brood comb that are 4.6mm in diameter. …What most people use for worker brood is foundation that is 5.4mm in diameter. If you translate that into three dimensions instead of one, it produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. One cause of this is shorter capping times by one day, and shorter post-capping times by one day. This means less Varroa get into the cells, and less Varroa reproduce in the cells. (14)
Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. And, have we here a solution to the vanishing bee problem? Is it one that the CCD Working Group, or indeed, the scientific world at large, will support? Will media coverage affect government action in dealing with this issue?
These are important questions to ask. It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time.
“We’ve been pushing them too hard,” Dr. Peter Kevan, an associate professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, told the CBC. “And we’re starving them out by feeding them artificially and moving them great distances.” Given the stress commercial bees are under, Kevan suggests CCD might be caused by parasitic mites, or long cold winters, or long wet springs, or pesticides, or genetically modified crops. Maybe it’s all of the above. (24)
This conclusion is not surprising, considering how the practice of beekeeping has been made ultra-efficient in a competitive world run by free market forces. Unlike many crops, honey is not given subsidy protection in the United States despite the huge importance of the bee industry to food production. The FDA has hardly moved at all to protect American producers from “honey pretenders” – products containing little or no honey that are imported and sold with misleading packaging. Rare is the beekeeper that does not need pesticide treatments and other techniques falling under the rubric of ‘factory farming.’ (15)
You might be justifiably stunned to know how little money is being thrown at this problem. A January 29, 2007 Penn State press release (just before CCD hit the big networks) stated: “The beekeeping industry has been quick to respond to the crisis. The National Honey Board has pledged $13,000 of emergency funding to the CCD working group. Other organizations, such as the Florida State Beekeepers Association, are working with their membership to commit additional funds.” A quick look at CostofWar.com will tell you that that $13,000 buys about 4 seconds of war at the going rate. Remember, these same scientists had presented the world with a similar threat level two years ago. Apparently they were ignored. (16)
Anyway, breathe easy; Congress has begun talking up the concept of getting involved. On April 26, the Senate Agriculture Committee, perhaps not trusting CNN, heard from representatives of the beekeeping industry just how important a matter this is. Committee Chairman, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the bee decline should be part of the current discussion of a new farm bill. “The U.S. honey industry is facing one of the most serious threats ever from colony collapse disorder,” he stated. “The bee losses associated with this disorder are staggering and portend equally grave consequences for the producers of crops that rely on honeybees for pollination. These crops include many specialty crops and alfalfa, so viable honey bee colonies are critically important across our entire food and agriculture sector.” (17)
Alfalfa? We should be worried because CCD threatens alfalfa and other specialty crops? He means apples and stuff we can assume, because Mark Brady, president of the American Honey Producers Association, had informed the committee that “honey bees pollinate more than 90 food, fiber and seed crops. In particular, the fruits, vegetables and nuts that are cornerstones of a balanced and healthy diet are especially dependent on continued access to honey bee pollination.” Science is always a hard sell. (17)
Even before that committee meeting, on April 16, Senator Clinton wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns, asking “that you provide us (a bipartisan group of senators) with an expedited report on the immediate steps that the Department is and will be taking to determine the causes of CCD, and to develop appropriate countermeasures for this serious disorder. In particular, we ask for a specific explanation of how the Department plans to utilize its existing resources and capabilities, including its four Agricultural Research Service honeybee research labs, and to work with other public and private sector enterprises in combating CCD.” These are fine questions indeed. (28)
Bees are finely tuned machines, much more robot-like than your average species. They operate pretty much like the Borg of Star Trek fame. A honey bee cannot exist as an individual, and this is why some biologists speak of them as super-organisms. They are sensitive barometers of environmental pollution, quite useful for monitoring pesticide, radionuclide, and heavy metal contamination. They respond to a vide variety of pollutants by dying or markedly changing their behavior. Honeybees’ stores of pollen and honey are ideal for measuring contamination levels. Some pesticides are exceptionally harmful to honey bees, killing individuals before they can return to the hive. (18)
Not surprisingly, the use of one or more new pesticides was, and likely remains, on the short list of likely causes of CCD. But more than pesticides could potentially be harming bees. Some scientists suspect global warming. Temperature plays an integral part in determining mass behavior of bees. To mention just one temperature response, each bee acts as a drone thermostat, helping cool or warm the hive whenever it isn’t engaged in some other routine.
As you might expect, rising temperatures in springtime cause bees to become active. Erratic weather patterns caused by global warming could play havoc with bees’ sensitive cycles. A lot of northeastern U.S. beekeepers say a late cold snap is what did the damage to them this year. Bill Draper, a Michigan beekeeper, lost more than half of his 240 hives this spring, but it wasn’t his worst year for bee losses, and he doesn’t think CCD caused it. He thinks CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness. (32)
According to Kenneth Tignor, the state apiarist of Virginia, another possibility with CCD is that the missing bees left their hives to look for new quarters because the old hives became undesirable, perhaps from contamination of the honey. This phenomenon, known as absconding, normally occurs only in the spring or summer, when there is an adequate food supply. But if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did last fall in the U.S., Tignor says the bees are unlikely to survive. (19)
A bee colony is a fine-tuned system, and a lot could conceivably go wrong. This is presumably why some scientists suspect cell phone radiation is the culprit behind CCD. This theory holds that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bee navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way home. German research has shown that bees behave differently near power lines. Now, a preliminary study has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. The head researcher said the result might provide a “hint” of a possible cause. Maybe they should check to see if beekeepers suddenly started using BlackBerrys in 2004.
It should be noted that the CCD Working Group at Penn State believes cell phones are very unlikely to be causing the problem. Nor are they interested in the possibility that GMO crops are responsible. Although GMO crops can contain genes to produce pesticides, some of which may harm bees, the distribution of CCD cases does not appear to correlate with GMO crop plantings. (20)
Honey bees are not native to North America or Europe. They are thought to come from Southeast Asia, although some recent research based on genomic studies indicates that their origin is actually in Africa. (21) Regardless, they represent only seven of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees. Apis mellifera, the most commonly domesticated species of honey bee, was only the third insect to have its genome mapped. These useful, and very prevalent, bees are commonly referred to as either Western honey bees or European honey bees. Although it is a non-native species, the honey bee has fit in well in America. It is the designated state insect of fifteen states, which surely reflects its usefulness.
Apis mellifera comes in a wide variety of sub-species adapted to different climates and geographies. Behavior, color and anatomy can be quite different from one sub-species to another, the infamous killer bees being a case in point. The Native Americans called the honey bee “the white man’s fly.” It was introduced to North America by European settlers in the early 1600s, and soon escaped into the wild, spreading as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Thus, there are significant numbers of feral hives in North America, though most of the honey bees you will see are working bees.
But you may not have even seen one for a while. These days, many gardeners are discovering that they must hand pollinate garden vegetables, thanks to widespread pollinator decline. It is more than fair to say that the extreme importance of honey bees as pollinators today stems from the fact that native pollinators are in decline almost everywhere.
The pollination of the American almond crop, which occurs in February and March, is the largest managed pollination event in the world, requiring more than one third of all the managed honey bees in the United States. Massive numbers of hives are transported for this and other key pollinations, including apples and blueberries. Honey bees are not particularly efficient pollinators of blueberries, but they are used anyway. We depend on managed honey bees because we are addicted to a monoculture-based managed agricultural sector.
There has been criticism that media coverage of the CCD story, perhaps in its quest to achieve the requisite ‘balance,’ has been too rosy. Some stories note that other pollinators are more significant than honey bees for many crops. But these stories seldom go on to tell how other pollinators are facing problems too. The BBC recently reported on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which is currently enlisting the public’s help to catalogue bumblebee populations. The story noted that several of the U.K.’s 25 species are endangered, and three have gone extinct in recent years. (22)
Another recent story in The Register stated that several U.K. bumblebee species are “heading inexorably for extinction.” According to scientists, the process is caused by “pesticides and agricultural intensification” which could have a “devastating knock-on effect on agriculture.” The disappearance of wildflower species has also been implicated in the British bumblebee decline. (23)(20)
Bumblebees are, however, doing well in one region, Neath Port Talbot, which was declared the bumblebee capital of Wales in 2004 after experts found 15 different species thriving there. This is almost certainly because the local council allows roadside verges to become overgrown with “weeds” and wildflowers. (20)
Surprise — it’s an ecosystem thing. As with honeybees and CCD, the root of the bumblebee problem lies in our modern rationalist drive toward endlessly ordering the world around us. The long-term solution is a return to a more natural ecological order. This interpretation needs to be conveyed when mainstream media tell the CCD story.
Of course, with all the parasites, pathogens, pesticides and transit to stress out our hardworking honey bees, they are in peril. Even if some silver bullet saves us from CCD, it is more than obvious that we need to pay more respect to bees, and to nature. This truth may be generalized to most facets of our agricultural existence; the bees are just a warning. Wherever you look, pests are getting stronger as the life forms we depend on get weaker. Adding more chemicals isn’t going to help for much longer.
Beekeepers are a busy and underpaid lot, and we should pay more heed to their services. Even now, with the vanishing bee story headlining on major networks, government players appear to have their eyes elsewhere. “There used to be a lot more regulation than there is today,” says Arizona beekeeper Victor Kaur. “People import bees and bring new diseases into the country. One might be colony collapse disorder.” (30)
“The bees are dying, and I think people are to blame,” is how Kaur puts it simply. “Bee keeping is much more labor intensive now than it was 15 years ago. It’s a dying profession,” he eulogizes. “The average age of a beekeeper is 62, and there are only a couple of thousand of us left. There are only about 2.5 million hives left. …It’s too much work.” (30)
If CCD proves to be more than a one-time seasonal fluke, the job of beekeeping just got a lot harder. Pollination can’t be outsourced, although it isn’t too difficult to imagine fields full of exploited underclass laborers pollinating crops by Q-tip. Let’s hope we never have to go there.
Perhaps a sensible reaction to the information summarized in this short article would be to write a letter to your government leaders. Insist that they immediately allocate significant funding to combat CCD using a variety of approaches. This must include ecological approaches such as wildflower renewal. Furthermore, insist that our few remaining beekeepers be given the support they deserve and desperately need at this important juncture. Humanity cannot afford to ignore this battle. It’s not science; it’s common sense.
FAQ’s Colony Collapse Disorder (PDF), Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, CCD Working Group
See also: http://www.ento.psu.edu/MAAREC/index.html
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Wikinews, February 10, 2007
Vanishing bees threaten US crops
By Matt Wells, March 11, 2007
Mystery Ailment Strikes Honeybees
By Genaro C. Armas, Associated Press, February 11, 2007
Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?
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Thread on dubious Einstein quote.
Vanishing honeybees mystify scientists
Reuters, April 22, 2007
Enemies of Bees
by Michael Bush
Scientists Identify Pathogens That May Be Causing Global Honey-Bee Deaths
Source: Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, April 26, 2007
Bees Wiped Out by Cascade of Deadly Events
By Robert Roy Britt, May 17, 2005
Bee Mites Suppress Bee Immunity, Open Door For Viruses And Bacteria
Source: Penn State, May 18, 2005
Labchuk’s email is reproduced in comments section; authorship was confirmed by this writer
Bush Bees Website
Regional Farm Bill field hearing: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, July 21, 2006
Honey bee die-off alarms beekeepers, crop growers and researchers
Penn State press release Jan 29, 2007
Colony collapse disorder is reducing U.S. bee population
By Zena McFadden, Medill News Service, April 26, 2007
Honey Bees and Bee Products as Monitors of the Environmental Contamination (PDF)
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In Apiacta, the journal of the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations
( http://www.beekeeping.com/apimondia/apiacta_us.htm )
Taiwan Is Latest Country Stung by Vanishing Honey Bees
By Jessica Berman, VOA News, April 27, 2007
Secret of bumblebee capital
BBC, 25 May, 2004
Research Upsetting Some Notions About Honey Bees
Source: Texas A&M University – Agricultural Communications, December 29, 2006
Bid to halt bumblebee decline
BBC, April 16, 2007
UK’s bumblebees face extinction
By Lester Haines
In Depth Insects: The plight of the honeybee
CBC News Online, Updated April 12, 2007
Why are Niagara’s bees dying?
By Dana Flavelle, Toronto Star, April 17, 2007
Bee mite found on Oahu
Apr 12, 2007 by Katherine Fisher, Hawaii Health Guide.com
Experts may have found what’s bugging the bees
By Jia-Rui Chong and Thomas H. Maugh II, LA Times, April 26, 2007
Senator Clinton Calls on USDA to Respond
All American Patriots, April 20, 2007
Taiwan mislays millions of honeybees
By Lester Haines, The Register, April 26, 2007
By Joanne C. Twaddell, The Daily Courier, April 23, 2007
A Comparison of Russian and Italian Honey Bees (PDF)
By David R. Tarpy, NC State University, and Jeffrey Lee, Beekeeper, Mebane NC
Tiers bees avoid deadly disease
By Salle E. Richards, Elmira Star-Gazette, April 3, 2007
Where are the bees?
Are GM Crops Killing Bees?
Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?