What’s up with the bees?


Bee and Echinacea
watercolor, 8.5″ square

A few weeks ago, I asked a beekeeper at the Portland (Oregon) farmer’s market whether his bees were ok. “Yeah, they are,” he said, “but I get that question a lot.” On Saturday a Seattle beekeeper told me he’d “had some losses” but added soberly, “it could be a lot worse.”

Since colony collapse disorder (CCD) broke out last November, as many as a quarter of our domestic honeybees (Apis mellifera) have disappeared, abandoning hives full of food and larvae. Some beekeepers have lost up to 90% of their hives. Since the adult bees don’t return to the hive to die, it’s impossible to say what killed them; the few victims left behind display a confusing variety of pathological problems, such as a digestive tract clogged with undigested food, elevated numbers of normally harmless pathogens, and discolored tissues. Weirdest of all, opportunistic scavenger species and bees from other hives won’t touch the abandoned stores of honey. What do they know that we don’t?

From a agricultural perspective, it’s a pressing question. Not all crops require bee pollination, but over 100 do, including almonds and many fruits. The bulk of a beekeeper’s own income is derived from renting his or her hives for pollination services, not from honey production – the Oregon beekeeper I interviewed said with a smile that he barely makes any money on honey. California’s almond growers have begun outbidding other industries for the services of beehives, because there are simply not enough to go around – and that was before CCD kicked in, decimating the bee supply in some regions of the US.

• View a narrated slideshow about CCD and the industrial side of beekeeping (NYT)

Depending who you ask, possible causes of CCD include GM crops; malnutrition (poor pollen quality/availability, or poor supplements provided by keepers); unusual numbers of common parasitic mites (varroa); a virus; funguses (a new, more infective strain of Nosema); poor genetic diversity in domestic bee strains; cell phones (or cordless phones – there seems to be some confusion); and pesticides (usually neonicotinoids). Whatever it is, it’s global – Canada and Europe also report losses. France, after serious hive losses several years ago, banned some neonicotinoid pesticides, but continue to lose bees anyway. Australia is largely ok; some US beekeepers have replenished their stocks with Australian bees.

recent LA Times review of the situation (June 10, 2007)

One (somewhat) comforting hypothesis is that CCD is actually old news – a periodic disorder that has happened before, and will clear on its own. Intermittent seasonal losses have been reported since 1868, in both the US and Europe; the occurances were given names like “dwindle disease”, “disappearing disease,” and “Isle of Wight disease.” In some cases, a putative cause, like fungus or unusual weather, was blamed; in other cases the problem simply went away without any likely cause being found (Underwood and van Engelsdorp, 2007). So will CCD just go away? Hopefully, but no one’s counting on it.

Agricultural practicalities aside, there’s something gut-wrenchingly wrong about CCD. A fundamental piece of the ecosystem is being leached away, and we have no idea why. I’m reminded of the epidemic of frog deformities a decade ago. Despite frantic experimentation by ecologists and developmental biologists, it was never solved (the most likely culprits are trematode parasites; but pesticides, habitat loss, and UV radiation probably contributed to the problem). Will a similar complex of interlocking causes be found for CCD? Will we be able to cure it, or will we just have to wait for it to diminish – as we did with the frogs?


MAAREC Colony Collapse Disorder homepage

CCD Working Group Preliminary Report

NYT article

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7 Responses to What’s up with the bees?

  1. Thanks for this excellent summation, Cicada.

    Most everyone I’ve talked to about CCD knows very little about it save the broad strokes offered by 30 second evening news clips.

    On one hand, you get the end-is-nigh folks screaming about the honeybee demise as a dire sign of the times. On the other, those folks that dismiss the collapse as an irrelevancy, a blip to be ignored as humanity moves ahead. Both groups are equally misinformed – many from the first group talk of “proof” of the cell phone hypothesis and insist that every species of bee is dying the world over; those in the latter group often argue that the importance of honeybees for pollination is vastly overestimated – and I’m not sure which attitude frustrates me more. Both groups, though, seem content to revel in their apathetic attitudes toward non-human species.

    Boo (as opposed to bee) either way. We need more clarification, and posts like this are a help.

  2. Andi says:

    “Weirdest of all, opportunistic scavenger species and bees from other hives won’t touch the abandoned stores of honey. What do they know that we don’t?”

    Thanks for taking me from ‘concerned about CCD’ to ‘full-fledged panic’ with two sentences. I’m trying to breathe deeply now.

  3. cicada says:

    Andi – breathe! breathe! I should clarify that although other species won’t plunder an abandoned hive for some time, they may eventually do so. CCD is characterized by either no plundering or an unusually long delay before plundering starts. There is no indication that when the honey is eventually eaten by scavengers, that it is “poisonous.” But the delay may suggest there is some sort of pathogen in the hive that other species know to avoid. . . we really don’t know.

    HH – thanks! Over in your post at your blog, you made a very good point – that CCD is not affecting native bees to our knowledge. Many native bees don’t form large colonies as Apis mellifera (European honeybee) does; also they don’t exist in the vast cultivated numbers of the European honeybee. So what CCD would even look like in those bees is an open question.

    In case people have the question why native bees can’t step up to do pollination in a more environmentally friendly manner – it’s not about the bee species, so much as the numbers. So many bees are needed to pollinate huge artificial fields of a single crop, all blooming during one short period of time, that the native bees of the area don’t have a prayer of getting it done, and even if there were enough of them to do it, the food supply during the rest of the year could not sustain the local population. That’s why Apis mellifera, which makes such tractable, populous hives, gets brought in just for the pollination, and then taken away. Unfortunately all this moving about may be contributing to CCD.

  4. M says:

    This is a terrific article, on par with any major publication’s view on the subject that I’ve read. It’s so important to remind people that the end of the world is not around the corner. (Although I’m pretty sure cellphones will be the death of us all, just like they’re killing the bees and making global warming happen. Just like they made rain acid in the 90’s and ripped that hole in the ozone.)

  5. Sunil says:

    I loved you painting. The washes are fantastic and apt for the subject blogged.

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