The Buzz on Vanishing Bees
Colony Collapse jeopardizes agriculture, honey and other bee products.
Apples and oranges, blueberries and cherries, pumpkins and peppers—what would life be without the amazing taste and healthful phytonutrients of these colorful fresh fruits and vegetables? You can thank the honeybee for what’s on your dining table. Despite the name, honey isn’t the only thing this humble creature gives us.
“We rely on bees as the pollinating workforce for the nation,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce crops at the scale and variety that we do.” Now many plants may be in danger as huge numbers of honeybees are simply vanishing. And the stinger? No one knows why.
They call it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD puts a name to the mysterious, heavy losses of bees during the winter of 2006-2007—“between 651,000 and 875,000 of the nation’s estimated 2.4 million colonies in 35 states,” says vanEngelsdorp—for about 25% of this country’s commercial beekeepers.
David Hackenberg, of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is one of them. In October 2006, he stacked all of his 2,950 beehives on semi trucks and hauled them down to Florida, leaving them to gather Brazilian pepper pollen. When he returned a month later to collect the hives, they weren’t buzzing like they should have been.
“There were no dead bees on the ground, either,” says Hackenberg. “There was plenty of honey in the boxes, but the wax moths and other predators that rob dead hives weren’t there. The amazing thing, though, was that the brood—the young ones—were left behind, and bees don’t normally do that.” Only in some hives did the queen and a handful of bees remain.
Two thousand of Hackenberg’s hives that autumn had been abandoned. He started calling around to other beekeepers. Was he the only one? Hardly. And the word spread, making world headlines. While some beekeepers were completely unaffected, others had lost up to 99% of their hives, far more than the normal 30% average annual loss attributed to mites and viruses.
Other hypotheses soon sprung up—stress, toxins, even the (now-debunked) idea that cell phone transmissions were throwing off bees’ ability to navigate.
The beekeeping industry has seen sudden, large-scale losses before, some with symptoms similar to those that Hackenberg and others have worried over, now attributed to CCD. More than a dozen times since the late 1890s, hives have been found empty, the finger pointing to everything from pests and pathogens to weather and genetics. The latest suspect: A virus not yet seen in the US.
Hackenberg believes that the new culprit, as part of a larger ball of wax, is a recently developed class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, sprayed on practically anything that grows. “The use in this country has become astronomical,” he says. That’s because it works. “It breaks down insects’ immune systems, and causes memory loss and nervous system disorders that make insects quit feeding.” Too bad some of those insects are bees. Further implicating these insecticides is the fact that bees raised in organic environments are largely unaffected by CCD.
Although last winter’s honeybee losses were deemed significant, “crop pollination needs were met, and some beekeepers have replaced most of their colonies,” says vanEngelsdorp. “But we’re hearing reports from beekeepers that adult-bee populations are still declining, a sign that CCD is likely to hit again.”
An immediate second wave of CCD would crush beekeepers. For decades, they’ve been steadily bowing out of the business anyway (5 million in the late 70s compared with 2.2 million today). Now, only 1% of beekeepers own 80% of the commercial hives. It’s a rare soul these days who enjoys the hard labor and lonely cross-country drives trucking bees from crop to crop—blueberries in Maine, pumpkins in Pennsylvania, apples in Washington.
Trouble Come February?
“We’ll see the effects first in the California almond industry,” says Hackenberg. That’s because this crop is the first to flower, in February, and almond growers are the largest users of honeybees for pollination. “They claim that by 2012, they’ll need 2 million commercial hives,” or 90% of all hives in the United States expected to be operating by then.
Will enough bees be buzzing? If not, farmers who have relied on those beekeepers are going to have to import bees from places they haven’t yet, such as Canada and Mexico, which means paying higher prices for pollination. And that translates into higher grocery-store prices for those apricots and that acorn squash. Don’t forget honey and other bee products, such as bee venom, bee pollen, royal jelly and propolis.
“There’s a temptation to say the sky is falling,” vanEngelsdorp continues. “But I do believe we can solve this CCD problem. We need to address the issue of colony health in a comprehensive manner, and work collaboratively with scientists and beekeepers.”
Hackenberg and vanEngelsdorp join the efforts of researchers at Columbia, Penn State, the Department of Agriculture and the Bee Alert Team in Montana; they’re all eyeing pesticides, as well as new and mutated pathogens. “We’re also looking at nutrition, because we know that poor nutrition adversely affects the immune system,” says vanEngelsdorp. Planting crops that attract bees for pollination—in rural and urban areas—can assure the little critters year-round food. North Carolina State University is studying environmental stress on bees (all that traveling takes its toll); and the role of genetics. There’s also talk of using alternative pollinators, such as other bee species, along with certain moths.
You can do something, too. Ever thought of taking up beekeeping? At the least, support your local beekeepers by buying local honey and other bee products. Write your congressperson and senators to urge CCD research funding be included in the Farm Bill. Then, next time you pull a pumpkin pie out of the oven or lick peach juice from your lips, savor the sensations. And be grateful for the millions of honeybees that make your meals.