By Paul Kaspereen
LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J.– Since the fall of the year 2006 a startling occurrence in the world of beekeeping has been brought to light: the disappearance of honeybees that are kept in captivity. This phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, (CCD for short) has had far-reaching effects on the world of beekeeping, agriculture and the American economy in general. The disorder has been researched extensively since it was first identified in 2006 but no single cause for the emergence of the disorder has been named.
It is not uncommon for beekeepers to have bad years for their hives. Poor weather, the presence of mites or viruses, pesticides and other factors such as stress can all contribute to significant losses to the numbers of bees in a year. CCD differs from these dangers to colony health in a few ways. The primary difference is that in the case of CCD no adult worker bees are found in the hive, not even the dead bodies. In cases of CCD it appears that the worker bees, which make up the vast majority of honeybees in a colony, vanish with little or no trace.
Since CCD was first identified in 2006, the overall losses to colonies managed by beekeepers have increased drastically from years before the disorder was identified. The USDA has been monitoring the losses through surveys since 2007. In that time the number of average colony loss has hovered around 30 percent every year. Of the percentage of lost colonies, close to 30 percent of the colonies lost were reported by beekeepers to show signs of CCD.
The chart above focuses solely on the figures released by the USDA. Other surveys have been released that report slightly different figures and different breakdowns of the numbers. A survey released by Lupine Logic Ltd. with financial backing by the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research asked beekeepers to describe the degree of their losses. 42 percent of those who responded said that their losses were “severe”.
Another study released by the Journal of Apicultural Research in 2009 found an interesting correlation between the presence of CCD and the size of the beekeeping operations. The study grouped the beekeeping operations into divisions based on the number of colonies managed. The table below describes their findings:
These findings indicate that larger beekeeping operations tend to display the symptoms of CCD more often than smaller operations. No reasons for the correlation were discussed in the study.
For beekeepers, the threat of colony loss is a very frightening scenario. Linda Osborne is a beekeeper at Foxhill Honey in Lafayette, N.J. who relies on the honey and wax produced by honeybees to sell in various products. New Jersey has been spared the brunt of the CCD epidemic, but concern about the disorder becoming more prevalent is still being kept in mind by beekeepers there.
“We have not experienced Colony Collapse Disorder from what I’ve seen,” said Osborne. “I’ve heard from beekeepers in Pennsylvania who have discovered empty hives though, and it makes me worried about what could happen here.”
New Jersey has seen less bee losses than most states in general with 15 percent of colonies lost in 2008. Compared to states like West Virginia where 52 percent of colonies were reported lost that year or Michigan where 56 percent were lost, New Jersey has been faring far better.
“We’re thankful that our bees have been relatively healthy,” said Osborne. “Hopefully New Jersey can maintain its healthy bee population.”
Aside from the prospect of losing bee-related products, CCD’s biggest threat is to the agricultural industry in the United States.
“I’m not sure if people realize how much of a role these bees play in getting produce on the table for us to eat,” said Osborne. “These losses could really hurt the production of important crops.”
Indeed, honeybees have been a major part of the modern agricultural industry. It has been estimated that in the past 50 years, there has been a 300 percent increase in the number of crops that require outside pollination. Honeybees make up the vast majority of the pollinators used in this way. Beekeepers rely on being able to provide farmers with healthy populations of honeybees to pollinate their crops.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some shortages in food production,” said Osborne. “These bees are really the backbone for a lot of the agricultural industry.”
Since the emergence of CCD, beekeepers have had to increase the prices at which they rent out their pollinators to farmers. This premium cost is necessary for the beekeepers to keep their own business sustainable, but it has a serious economic impact in the operation of farms.
“I have heard about beekeepers really increasing their prices,” said Osborne. “There’s really no way around that unfortunately.”
One particular area that is being hit hard by the honeybee shortage is the almond industry. Around 80 percent of all almonds in the world are grown in California and honeybees are responsible for the pollination of the almond trees there. Every spring beekeepers from across the country bring their hives out to California to rent them out to almond farmers for pollination.
The threat of CCD has made the pollination of almond crops a more difficult and expensive process. There have been reports of beekeepers making the trip to California in the spring of this year only to discover that many of their colonies had mysteriously vanished by the time they arrived. With the price of hive rental increasing already, less bees to work with makes it even harder for almond farmers to insure the growth of their crop. The potential for a world almond shortage is a distinct possibility because of the loss of bees.
Of main concern for beekeepers and farmers alike is to find out a way to stop CCD. The problem with such an endeavor is that the reasons for the emergence of CCD have not been determined. Despite intense research over the past four years the whole colony collapse phenomenon is still largely an open-ended mystery for the scientific community.
Research into the causes of CCD has been unable to identify a single cause for the disappearance of worker bees. Scientists believe a combination of factors contributes to the disappearance. Exactly what factors and how they interact with each other is still the subject of research for those in the industry as well as the U.S. government.
There are many threats to captive bee hives that have existed for some time. There are mites such as varroa mites that feed on the hemolymph (insect blood) of bees. Tracheal mites attack the respiratory system of honey bees and can devastate hives. Then there’s the more recent Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV) which emerged in 2004 in Israel and has since found its way over to the United States. This virus has been linked to many cases of CCD but has not been identified as the definitive cause for the disorder.
Beyond the natural threats to honeybees there is also the possibility that man-made pesticides used to keep out invaders such as the varroa mite could be contributing to the rise of CCD. Some researchers believe that these pesticides weaken the larvae (developing bees) in a colony and may cause other unforeseen issues among adult bees.
One pesticide produced by Bayer Crop Science Company to protect crops that bees sometimes pollinate has been linked by some beekeepers as a potential cause of CCD. In August The National Resources Defense Council sued the EPA for withholding information about the risks that the pesticide poses to honeybees. Though there has been no research that has confirmed the pesticide as a leading cause of CCD, many beekeepers have implicated it as a potential hazard for the bees.
Research into CCD is not all dead-ends, however. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Army along with researchers out of the University of Montana found a connection between two bee antagonists that could prove to be invaluable in the understanding of CCD. The researchers discovered the presence of the DNA-based invertebrate iridescent virus (IIV) and the fungus Nosema cerenae in all of the hives that they studied that had suffered from CCD. This is the first time a direct relationship between two bee ailments has been found in colonies suffering from CCD. The next step, according to the researchers, is to infect a colony with the virus and fungus and see whether it causes a colony collapse. If the correlation proves to be true then researchers could be another step closer to solving the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder and could then begin finding ways to fight back.
In the meantime, those involved in the beekeeping and agricultural industry are looking for any help that they can get in the fight against Colony Collapse Disorder. The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign is an effort that seeks to protect pollinators including honey bees by creating funding for research and spreading awareness. In addition, the campaign provides an opportunity for the public to volunteer in conservation efforts that protect pollinators. With support from the public and the government, the fight against CCD could help to protect the well-being of not only the bees, but also our own health and economy.
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2008 Beekeeper Survey
2009 Beekeeper Survey