Tag Archives: Colony Collapse Disorder

The Apis Mellifera: the Cost of Maintaining the Powerful Pollinator

As Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating entire bee colonies, commercial pollinators are faced with rising costs and challenges in an effort to stay in business.

Honey bee pollinating an almond blossom--Courtesy of artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

“A decline in the numbers of Apis Mellifera [the honey bee], the world’s most widely distributed, semi-domesticated insect, doesn’t just mean a shortage of honey for toast and tea.  In fact, the economic value of honey, wax and other bee products is trivial in comparison to the honey bee’s services as a pollinator,” says entomologist May R. Berenbaum in the March 2, 2007 New York Times article “Losing their Buzz.” Oftentimes the debate around Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) focuses solely on the causes of the disappearance of the bees “and the reader,” according to a report by Randal Rucker, agricultural economist, “ is left to speculate on the relationship between CCD and the supply of pollination services.”  The impact of CCD on U.S. commercial pollinators is in fact far reaching:  CCD has a marked effect on the cost of pollination, and on the rising cost of producing honey bees and of renting them for pollination purposes.  An investigation of the economic implications and the economic costs of CCD is an important element of the debate.

The Apis mellifera, the world’s “premier managed pollinator species,” is a principal pollinating actor across the continents.  The honey bee transfers the pollen grain to receptive female floral parts so they can be fertilized.  As the bees flit from flower to flower they collect nectar.  In this process, as Rucker points out,  grains of pollen become attached to their bodies and, in the transferral to the flower, fertilize the plant which enables its reproduction.   As Berenbaum points out in this article,  “3/4 of the 250,000 […] species of flowering plants on the planet rely on mobile partners – pollinators – to carry out this vital process.”  These mobile partners, “’the birds and the bees’ remain an essential fact of life; as long as plants depend on pollinators, so will people.”

PBS reports on the bees’ role in pollinating our crops:

A strong colony of honey bees, as Rucker et al. point out in this article, consists of one queen, 15,000-30,000 worker bees that are sterile females and a few thousand males or drones whose sole responsibility is to fertilize the queen.  Although colonies have historically always suffered losses, in 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper noticed an unprecedented  decline in his colonies.  The unusual characteristics of the empty hives, with no dead bodies around, has been leading scientists ever since to speculate on the cause of what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD has had strong repercussions on the commercial pollinating business.  Although bee colony decline, according to Berenbaum in this article, has not affected corn and other grain crops that are fertilized by the wind, it has seriously affected animal-pollinated foods:  most fruits, nuts, and vegetables – the diet from which we derive all vitamins.    As a result of CCD, beekeeping, an age old tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago, is seeing the costs of bee production rise.  Producers are confronted with the increased costs of renting bees to pollinate their crops, according to Hoy Carman, Professor of Agricultural & Resource Economics at U. C. Davis.

Bees being trucked--Courtesy of Emmett Unlimetted/Flickr Creative Commons

Colony losses and the need for colony replacement are understood as an intrinsic part of bee keeping and replacement methods are generally expensive.  After 2006, winter losses increased from 14 to 36%, and beekeepers have been working to address this sharp increase.  The method of choice used to replace about 80% of the colonies lost is a costly one.  It is the “making increase” method or splitting of the hive: 50% of the hive is moved to a healthy and new hive that will be fertilized by a queen acquired from a commercial queen breeder.  This expensive process relies on the buying of one queen bee per split.  In addition to the cost of the queen, Rucker points out that the beekeeper incurs a 20 minute labor cost per colony to transfer “the four or five frames of brood, bees, and honey stores from the parent colony to stock the nuc colony.”  Boulder Colorado beekeeper, Tom Theobald, sympathizes with the challenges commercial beekeepers are faced with:  “I sympathize with commercial beekeepers.  I can survive the exit of bee keeping from my life.  For these commercial beekeepers this is their life.  They don’t deserve this.”

As the number of bee colonies decline, not only are our crops at stake but so is the business of commercial beekeeping.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A New Perspective on the Phenomenon

Bees have been disappearing for centuries.  To some, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as a discrete phenomenon does not exist.  In an effort to study the cause of this decline, a researcher questions whether the methods of inquiry are scientific.

Bee hives abandoned by worker bees-- Courtesy of mdjdfan/ Flickr Clreative Commons

In a BBC World Service Report from March 2009, “‘No Proof’ of bee killer theory,”  science reporter Matt McGrath stresses that honey bees are “of crucial importance to the local economy.”  It is undeniable that the honey bee is fundamental to the continued agricultural productivity and economic health of America and the world.  In 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper, sounded the alarm: he had found his bee boxes empty of bees, no dead bees in the neighborhood, no bodies to be found.   The mysterious disappearance of the bees was to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  But is this decline of the bees really such a new phenomenon?

While scientists are researching the potential causes of this sudden and drastic collapse of bee colonies, and pointing to discrete culprits such as pesticides, fungicides, stress, monoculture food, and mites, it remains unclear whether what Dave Hackenberg and other bee keepers, noted beginning in 2006 was an unprecedented event.  The question then is: is this decline a new disorder, what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder,”  or is it just a phenomenon that has been happening for hundreds of years but that, given this 2006 publicity, has come to be seen as a new phenomenon?

In my previous blog posts, I have focused on the possible causes of CCD – pesticides, and in particular neonicotinoids, fungicides, and viruses – without questioning the basic hypothesis underlying the debate–that Colony Collapse Disorder exists as a discrete phenomenon.    Scientists, according to Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the congressional research service, do not argue about whether the bee colonies are declining.  The colonies are.  There is consensus, furthermore, that this decline is not brought on by a single factor but rather by a multiplicity of factors acting synergistically.

The question remains: why has the decline of bees that has always been integral to bee life been named in 2006 CCD?

Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, states in a November 8, 2011 interview, that the death of bees is part of a natural process:  “Colonies die off.  They always have.  Every bee keeper knows that.  There have been major declines in bee keeping before, even before major chemicals came into use.  It has been historically shown.  It is not a new phenomenon.”  So why is it being treated as a new phenomenon?

Steinkraus points first to the flaw in identifying CCD as a discrete disorder.  Beyond that he also underscores the flawed approach of identifying a potential cause for CCD based on the analyses of dead bees.   Upon analyses of dead bees, Steinkraus points out that scientists have found  certain viruses present among all the dead bees.   It is tempting to conclude, as he says,  that the viruses found among all the dead bees are the viruses responsible for killing them:  “They all died of this virus because they all had this virus present.  However, the presence of microorganisms is not proof of disease.  People are analyzing the bees genetically to see what microbes are present and they are finding zillions of microbes.  Finding zillions of species of microbes present in the bees even if they are known pathogens is no proof of disease.   If someone looks in your mouth, for instance,  […] they find that your mouth houses something like 200 different species of bacteria at all times. […] but these bacteria are not causing disease.  The presence of these microorganisms is not proof of disease.”

Steinkraus underscores the absurdity of such reasoning:

These speculations or opinions, in Steinkraus’ view, about the potential causes of CCD are getting a lot of media attention.  Instead of presenting opinion or speculation as scientific evidence, he claims one should perform scientific experiments on the dead bees in order to find a cause for a decline that has existed among bee colonies for centuries.  People, as Steinkraus points out, are finding ”all these microorganisms and [saying] ‘this is the cause.’ But instead of doing experiments to prove the cause, everybody is just writing these papers left and right and getting all kinds of press.”

Steinkraus points to flaws in reasoning and in scientific method: 1) the assumption that the decline in bee colonies is a new phenomenon  and 2) that the studies of this decline are not conducted in a scientifically sound manner but rather driven by opinion and speculation.  According to Steinkraus CCD, per se, may not be a discrete phenomenon and the methods used to identify the causes of the decline in bee colonies may be questionable.

Is it a Virus? Navigating the theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder

To some, it is not pesticides or fungicides, but rather viruses, and in particular the Israeli Acute Paralytic Virus, that play an important role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). How is one to plot a course around all these differing opinions?

In this age where an abundance of information is at our fingertips, it is easy to give in to a natural desire to jump to conclusions when it comes to suggesting the causes of  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD  is a complex synergistic phenomenon where a number of factors have been identified as contributing to the decline of the bee colonies.  On this point everyone in the scientific community agrees, says Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service.   As part of my research to date, I have focused on pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, that, lacing the pollen, end up being stored in the hive, and on fungicides that wreak their havoc in the heart of the hive,  destroying the bee’s intestinal flora.   Among the other factors identified as playing a role in CCD are viruses.

Viruses behave in a similar manner whether they infect bees or humans.  According to Beeologics, an international firm that focuses on protecting bees from viruses, viruses will infect the host in a variety of manners: through varroa mite bites, through the alimentary track during feeding, or through trauma on the body.  They will spread throughout the colony either horizontally — from bee to bee, from fecal matter or infested food –, or vertically — from the queen to her eggs.  Just as in humans, viruses will strike a colony more effectively when it is weakened by stressors such as overcrowding, lack of forage diversity, pesticide-laden pollen, or the reduced genetic pool of the queen bees.  Furthermore, bad flying conditions that relegate the bees to their hive and lead them to defecate in the hive also have an effect on the spread of disease.

Honeybee with deformed wings-- Courtesy of Klaas de Gelder/ Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many viruses that affect honey bees, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) has been given particular attention across scientific disciplines.  Given how bees and humans transmit viruses in similar ways, there has been, according to  Science News article, ” Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees,” a  “profound synergy within the [research] group bringing together entomology, microbiology, and bio-informatics.”  Closely related to the Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, IAPV, transmitted by varroa mites, is, as Beeologics points out on its website, “the most consistent  indicator of Colony Collapse Disorder.”  First identified in Israel in 2004, IAPV, as science reporter Roxanne Khamsi points out in a News scientist article, causes “bees to develop shivering wings and eventually become paralyzed, leading to death just outside the hive.”   The U.S. strain of IAPV is distinct from the Israeli one and seems to be rapidly changing and spreading throughout the U.S.

Beeologics is very involved in researching this virus.   In a phone interview on November 8, 2011, Eyal Ben-Chanoch, CEO of Beeologics, discussed the experiment his researchers had conducted  on hives to ascertain the role of IAPV in CCD:  “we were able to show in controlled trial that when we inoculate healthy hives with the virus, we get similar symptoms to CCD.  It’s not necessarily a one to one [cause and effect] because other things can do it too, but we showed that when you inoculate the virus into a healthy bee hive after very short period you get CCD-like symptoms.”

Even though the results of this scientific experiment point to the very important  role of IAPV in the decline of honey bee colonies, Ben-Chanoch stressed that this is only one small step in understanding the nuances of the issue.   In discussing the spread of the virus among bees, he underscored the complexities involved in studying infectious diseases: “[The spread of infectious diseases] is not well understood in any infectious disease.  Again, it is science in progress, but if somebody will tell you that they know, they just make statements that are irresponsible.”

Jeff Pettis, Research leader for the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about IAPV and underscores the fact that the findings concerning the correlation between IAPV and CCD are not conclusive:

In my October 27 post, I highlighted the conviction of some people in the industry that pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, played, without a doubt, a crucial role in CCD.  Today, my research led me to viruses and in particular to IAPV which, in the view of researchers at Beeologics, for instance, play a salient role in CCD.

How are we to navigate amidst so many firm convictions?

Professor Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, stresses the need to distinguish between speculation and science when reporting on potential causes of CCD. He hearkens back, in a phone interview with me on November 8, 2011, to the basic experimentation principles of Louis Pasteur, and in particular to the importance of testing hypotheses on randomized samples.  As a scientist he does not like to speculate:

As we continue to explore the factors possibly contributing to CCD, Donald Steinkraus reminds us that science is not a discipline of rapid solutions driven solely by passion but rather a field driven by hypotheses, data, and patient analysis.

Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Accounting for his Losses in Colorado: A Honey Farmer Looks to Neonicotinoids

According to Tom Theobald, a Boulder Colorado bee keeper, chlothianidin is causing the decline of bee colonies. How and when did the bees get poisoned?

“These neonicotinoids are huge.  This is the insecticidal equivalent of plutonium,” said Tom Theobald, in a phone interview on October 26, 2011.  In my last blog post, I asked whether chlothianidin was responsible for CCD.  To some, to Tom Theobald, there is no doubt.

Long before CCD became a national story in 2006, Tom Theobald had been experiencing unusual losses among his honey bee colonies.  As early as the winter of 1995, with the appearance of the varroa mites, the Colorado bee keeper’s colonies had suffered serious declines, their hives being abandoned, teeming with honey that other bees failed to forage.  The varroa mite was considered the culprit at the time.  As its impact diminished, the winter losses, however, continued to escalate.  This escalation coincided, in Theobald’s view, with the introduction of the pesticide Imidachloprid.

Imidacloprid, first registered for use in the US by the EPA in 1994 and banned in France  since 2004, in Germany and Italy since 2008 , is a neonicotinoid that systematically penetrates the plant and is used to control sucking and chewing insects.  It penetrates the insect’s nervous system, blocking its neural pathway that, in insects, is more abundant than in warm-blooded animals.  The insect that sucks on the treated crop will become paralysed and die.  Imidacloprid is in fact known to be highly toxic to bees.   In 2003, when its patent ran out, it was replaced by another neonicotinoid, chlothianidin.

On his Colorado honey farm, Tom Theobald set out like Sherlock Holmes to try to explore the mystery of his disappearing bees.   His colonies had ended the summer strong: “the brood nest was the size of a basketball.”  Yet somehow, by October, the brood nest had suffered a precipitous decline in size – “it had become the size of a softball.”  The colony of 30,000 bees had declined to 3,000.  Puzzled by this decline and given the absence of varroa mites, he figured that the queen must have either stopped laying, stopped laying viable brood, or that the larvae were dying.  This period in the fall, when the colony is producing the winter brood, is a crucial one: there must be a critical mass of bees to protect the colony, to serve as the outer layer, the “sacrificial blanket” as it were of the hive that keeps the dormant bees warm throughout the cold winter months.  With the break in the brood cycle, there was no winter layer and the colonies simply collapsed.

Bee colonies--Courtesy of Avalanche Looms/Flickr Creative Commons

Why this sudden arrest in procreative activity?  Theobald looked over to the surrounding corn fields.  The corn pollen contained the neonicotinoid chlothianidin known to compromise the fertility of the queen and the viability of the brood, as explained in the PAN pesticides Database: “Population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. For example, certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honeybee colonies. The neonicotinoids, pyrethroids and keto-enol pesticides are some types of pesticides causing one or more of these effects.”

The bees, Theobald explained in his interview, will store pollen and not use it as long as there is fresh pollen available.  Thus the pesticide-laden corn pollen culled in the summer got “stored in the pantry” until the supply of fresh pollen ran out.  At that point, around October, the neonicotinoid of the stored pollen attacked the queen’s reproductive system. 

When the summer bees die, having worked themselves to death, winter bees normally replace them.  Now Theobald’s summer bees had died and there were no winter bees to take over and repopulate the colony.

Chlothianidin will enter its tenth year on the market and it has yet to meet the requirements of registration.  When chlothianidin was approved in 2003, there was no pressing insect scourge, Theobald points out, that required immediate approval of the pesticide.  What was running out was Bayer‘s, the manufacturing company’s, patent for Imidacloprid.  So today, as he says, “we are subjected to all this damage not to protect the world against an insect but to protect Bayer’s market share.”

"We want bees, not toxic chemicals"--Courtesy of Avaazorg/Flickr Creative Commons

Given the risks and the damages, is there then any advantage to the use of these neonicotinoids? No.   Not only is it killing the bees, according to Theobald, but it is poisoning the soil: “If you are a farmer and you get on this boat, what does your soil look like in five years?  You don’t have soil.  You have real estate.”  As chlothianidin has a half life of nineteen years, it takes over 100 years for the soil to purge itself of the chemical.  While the effect on the bees’ neural receptors is cumulative and irreversible, Theobald admonishes “it goes way beyond the bees.”

The Disappearance of the Buzz: is Chlothianidin the Culprit?

Chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid, may be one of the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder.     Why is it still on the market?

“Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”  Rachel Carson’s call to arms is as current today as it was in 1962.  The use of pesticides in America’s farmlands today continues to create concern regarding the ease of legalization and laxness of regulation.

Clothianidin and CCD (Photo courtesy of Timw_brap)

The disappearance of bees across the globe remains an open question, although clear attention is being paid to pesticides as potentially contributing factors.   The connection of pesticides to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is an example of both the lack of regulation and of supervision at the federal level when it comes to marketing and distributing highly noxious chemicals.  The story of one pesticide in particular, however, highlights the recognition that, as Paul Brooks, Carlson’s editor, says: in our “overorganized and overmechanized age, individual initiative and courage still count.”

While scientists agree that CCD is “a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination or synergistically,” research continues to focus on pesticides.  One pesticide in particular is raising a buzz in the bee community as well as on the federal level.  The case of chlothianidin, a neonicotinoid (considered a “green” pesticide because it is derived from nicotine), underscores the difficulties encountered in challenging large manufacturing companies and the EPA.

This nicotine-derived pesticide, that the EPA registered conditionally in 2003, is a systemic pesticide.  It is, as Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper, points out, “incorporated into the system of the plant when the seed germinates.”  It is thus more appealing to the farmer.  Spraying cycles are less frequent and the pesticide kills all unwanted pests: “any insect which chews or sucks on the plant ingests the pesticide and dies.”  The problem here of course lies in selectivity: how does one save the good bugs from the bad bugs?  How does a bee keeper keep his bees from pollinating pesticide-treated corn in the hundreds of acres surrounding their beehive?

The answer is quite simple.  He cannot.  We cannot.  As Dave Hackenberg,  Pennsylvania’s largest bee keeper explains in a phone interview on October 17, 2011:  “you can’t build a fence around [the bees]  like you would with a cow […] The honeybees are going to fly for miles in each direction.  The colonies are going to bring [neonicotinoids] home.”  The problem with neonicotinoids is a complex one, as Hackenberg suggests in his interview with me:

In researching the effects of one of the neonicotionoids, chlothianidin, Theobald points out that two thirds of the bee colonies of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, died in May 2008, 99% of them showing high levels of chlothianidin.  It took Germany only two weeks to ban the chemical.  Soon Italy and Slovenia followed suit.

So why is the United States lagging in its response to banning it?  In researching the history of chlothianidin Theobald revealed the EPA scientists’ comments of February 2003: “This compound is toxic to honey bees.  The persistence of residues and the expression of chlothianidin in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual stability of the hive.”

And yet the pesticide was approved by the EPA for use.  In April 2003, the EPA gave a registration to Bayer, the manufacturing company, that was conditional on its completion of a chronic honey bee study recommended by EPA scientists that would evaluate and confirm the possibility of toxicity.

In 2008, the results of the Bayer study, held under wraps since 2006, were made public.  They showed bees had been unaffected by the use of chlothianidin.  As Tom Theobald points out in “Pesticide Blowout,” “four colonies of bees were set in the middle of one hectare [..] of canola planted from treated seed, with the bees free to forage over thousands of surrounding acres in bloom with untreated canola, which they surely did.  What do you think the results were? They were exactly what Bayer wanted, of course.”

On December 8, 2010, representatives from several beekeeping associations wrote a letter to the EPA highlighting the “imminent hazard” posed by chlothianidin and requesting that the EPA issue a “stop use order.”   The EPA responded in February 2011 that the “imminent hazard” was not supported by data, evidence, or explanation: there was no case for issuing a “stop use order.”

The outcome: the pesticide is still on the market, waiting until 2012 for the EPA to assess the hazard it poses to honey bees. In Europe, the ban seems to have been rapid and efficient.  In the United States, the battle to ban chlothianidin remains an uphill one.

A Local Perspective on a Global Disorder

A dramatic decline in honey bee colonies, the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is puzzling the scientific community worldwide: why this sudden decline?

Photo by Fiamma van Biema

In the Hudson Valley we look forward with anticipation to the vibrant colors of the  Fall and to the apple harvest.  After all, New York is the apple state.  Yet we never realize that the harvest depends in great part on the successful work of a small and industrious insect, the honey bee.  Honey bees, that flit from flower to flower in early spring, are responsible, says Renee Johnson, a specialist in agricultural policy,  for the pollination of one third of the U.S. diet and  are the most economically valuable pollinators of crops worldwide.  The value of this productivity is estimated at $15-20 billion per year in the United States alone and $215 billion worldwide.  In fact a number of crops is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination and among these are apples and almonds.

Since late March 2006 entire colonies of honey bees are disappearing.   According to Johnson, in her article “Honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” the dramatic decline of bee colonies is not attributable to an identifiable biological agent.  The disappearance of the bees is not seasonal; it occurs year-round.  Bees are behaving uncharacteristically: they fail to return to their own hives; adult worker bees disappear rapidly and suddenly; hives are abandoned still replete with pollen and honey, food that neighboring colonies fail to forage.

It is not uncommon for bee colonies to undergo population losses.   As Sandler points out,  colonies in the past have suffered from bee pests, parasitic mites (such as the Varroa destructor and the tracheal mite (Acaparis woodi)), bacterial diseases such as European Foul Brood and American Foul Brood, and loss of habitat.  Losses have been attributed as well to the appearance of invasive plants that reduce nectar producing vegetation.  Today, however, this significant decline, known as the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), remains puzzling and for the most part unexplained.  As Johnson points out, there is a general agreement in the scientific community that “no single factor alone is responsible [for CCD and that it may be] a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination or synergistically.”

Globally researchers and apiarists have been struggling to solve the mystery of CCD.  Among them, Dennis John Haverkamp, master bee keeper of the Bedford Bee Honeybee Service, a  service that began as a response to the colony collapse disorder, is doing research on a local level.    In an interview on October 10, 2011, DJ agrees that CCD is a complex phenomenon attributable to any number of problems including stress.   During the three weeks of the February and March pollination season of the California almond groves, commercial bees undergo a remarkable level of stress.  As Sandler comments, “like an accountant during tax time, the bees become tired and more susceptible to health problems.”  Fifteen years ago, DJ points out that bees were not trucked cross country as readily as they today.  Today, over 1 million bees from colonies all over the US are used to pollinate the almond trees of the San Joachim Valley.   These commercial pollinators are now transported in trucks in large colonies across the continent and are never allowed to adapt to one environment.  They are fed corn syrup for weeks and then are put to work in the California almond groves where they feed exclusively off of almond flowers throughout the pollinating season.  As DJ explains. “You are feeding bees almond flower diet for three weeks straight, and […] on the truck the nutritional quality is poor. […]  We are pushing bees to the limit of what they can do.”

When pollinating crops in the Midwest, bees suffer as well from the consequences of the massive herbicide treatment that farmers use to enhance their yield.  The herbicide Roundup kills all weeds except for the crop of choice the farmers are cultivating.  As DJ notes, this destruction of weeds on whose pollen the bees would feed, spells nutritional depletion: “Nothing is left for [all] pollinators and [in particular] bees to feed on.”

As with herbicides, fungicides are also correlated with the decline of honeybee colonies.  DJ points to the important role of fungus in the hive: “the pollen is broken down by the fungus inside the hive.  This process may be breaking down because of the presence of fungicides in the environment.”

Adding to the stress stemming from transit and nutrition, bees are particularly vulnerable in DJ’s view, as they lack genetic diversity:

In an effort to address on a very local level a large global disorder, DJ focuses on educating the public and raising and nurturing locally adapted queen honey bees in the Hudson Valley.

Photo by Fiamma van Biema

In apple country, once you have picked all the apples you can by hand, you take a long hoe and shake the branches.  So go out and shake the branches and let me know how well the honey bees toiled last spring.