Colony Collapse Disorder

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Colony Collapse Disorder

(Last updated, 2008 - I.e., this article is very old. It is way overdue for update)

Pollinators in general are in steep decline. Though we are concerned about all pollinators, and in particular, native pollinators, the bulk of our (USA) food and seed crop pollination has come from honey bees ever since they arrived with settlers of the Jamestown Settlement.

Varroa Mites are particularly destructive to honey bee colonies. They damage the bees physically, but even more destructively, they serve as vectors for disease. This graph shows when mites become most destructively plentiful in a hive. On average, if a beehive does not withstand the assault of the varroa mites, the hive is killed within two years.

Honey bees have flourished in the US for centuries until the 1980's and 1990's when tracheal and varroa mites decimated both feral and domestic honey bees. Feral bees have been reduced to approximately 2% of what they once were. Think back to your childhood — remember having to watch your step in the summer-time? With the feral bee population effectively wiped out, you are unlikely to interrupt a foraging bee anymore.

Many beekeepers were driven out of business in those years, but the industry has since rebounded. The mites are now manageable. Everyone could finally breathe a sigh of relieve... until 2006. In 2006, the beekeeping industry was clobbered with huge losses of honey bees due to an unknown agent. This disorder was labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, or simply CCD.

The Carolina Bee Company has fortunately had no issues with CCD. In fact, though there have suspected cases of CCD in North Carolina, the state has more-or-less dodged the disorder. Additionally, CCD seems to target larger beekeeping operations.

The websites linked throughout this page do a better job describing CCD, but here is a summary of the current (2008-03-01) state of the disorder as we understand it.

The summary of CCD symptoms (adapted from the Colony Collapse Disorder Wikipedia article):

  • Complete absence of adult bees in colonies, with little or no build-up of dead bees in or around the colonies. They literally flew off and never returned.
  • Presence of capped brood in colonies. Bees normally will not abandon their young.
    • which are not immediately robbed by other bees
    • which when attacked by hive pests such as wax moths and small hive beetles, the attack is noticeably delayed.

Precursor symptoms that may arise before the final colony collapse are:

  • Insufficient workforce to maintain the brood that is present
  • Workforce seems to be made up of young adult bees
  • The Queen is present (i.e. she is not lost)
  • The colony members are reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement.

People are really started to question our corporate destruction of the planet and see honey bee issues as the canary in the coal mine. This will eventually come to a head.

As of this writing, there is no lead causative agent for CCD. For some time we had a leading contender in a newly discovered virus, the Israel acute paralysis virus. Unfortunately, this virus has turned out to be less likely the causative agent than we had original thought.

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What we do know though is that all CCD bees show signs of enormous stress and immunodeficiency. The cause may be viral, pesticides, internal hive antibiotics and miticides, or Nosema. Or it could be a combination of these things. Upon extensive autopsy, the world honey bee stock was found to consist of very sick animals. They are being bombarded with pathogens and chemicals. It may be (and highly likely) that we are simply nudging our bees over some critical health threshold leaving them vulnerable to disease.

It is incredibly important to get to the bottom of this issue. Probably more importantly in the long haul, we need to figure out how to manage our bees so that they are healthier animals. Honey bees pollinate1 our nuts, fruits, and many of our vegetables. They are also critical pollinators of our seed supply.

The real danger could come if these pathogens kill bees faster than we can replace them both driving beekeepers out of business and reducing the pollinating stock of bees available. The world food and seed industry relies on a surprisingly limited number of beekeepers. Even if they can raise rental costs enough to make a living, they may not be able to maintain the numbers of hives they once did. This is a real danger.

Support your local beekeeper. Buying local honey and bee-related products ensures that your money goes into his or her pocket. If you are a gardener, consider hiring a beekeeper to place a couple hives in your backyard. Honey bee hives are utterly non-intrusive and seeing your flowers all a-buzz with honey bees is a naturally delightful experience. Also consider planting bee friendly flowers instead of having an unbroken sterile green lawn.2

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A few years ago, Häagen-Dazs super-premium ice cream (Pillsbury/General Mills, and under license to Nestlé) was one food producer that stepped up to the plate by donating $250,000 to help fund research into CCD. It isn't a lot, but it sure helps3. Unfortunately, Häagen-Dazs is only one of the few food producers contributing cash to research. We would love to see more.

Burt's Bees, as one might expect, has contributed both to funding for research 2 and to raising awareness through a thoughtful public service announcement and an offer for a free packet of bee friendly flower seeds 4 .

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Footnotes: (all links last accessed February 22, 2014)

  1. An incomplete list of plants that need to be pollinated.
  2. The Pollinator Partnership - your source for pollinator information. A wealth of information and a way to easily donate money to help fund research.
  3. Häagen-Dazs loves Honey Bees campaign site - slick flash site promoting Häagen-Daz' concern about the plight of the honey bee.
  4. Burt's Bees and sustainability - Burt's Bees seems to be showing some commitment to working towards a more sustainable future. They also, a couple years ago, made a quirky public service announcement concerning CCD -- YouTube video.

Other links and resources:


 


Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the Taste3 conference, 2007

Honey bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp celebrates the joy of bees and examines the most up-to-date theories on Colony Collapse Disorder.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the Taste3 conference, 2008

A Plea for Bees

TED link: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/dennis_vanengelsdorp_a_plea_for_bees.html