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