What Is Killing the Honey Bees? Colony Collapse Disorder
Why Are Honey Bees Important to Food Resources?
Think of honey bees—apis mellifera—as the smallest and most industrious of farm-workers. As they flit from flower to flower in search of nectar, which they use to make honey, they transfer pollen from flower to flower. This is called pollination. Without pollination, many plants would not be able to produce fruits and vegetables.
How important are honey bees? Think of it this way: One out of every three mouthfuls of food that you eat came courtesy of honey bees.
Honey bees are not the only insects that pollinate food crops, and some crops are pollinated by both honey bees and other insects (like butterflies). However, many crops are pollinated only by honey bees. Here are some of the foods that we would lose if we lose our honey bees. Are some of your favorite foods on the list?
A List of Foods You Would Lose Without Honey Bees
Black Eyed Peas
Rapeseed (Canola Oil)
In addition to being responsible for the production of our food crops, bees produce honey. The honey bee hive is a little honey-making factory turning nectar into honey. The bees make this honey so they will have a food supply in the winter. They make much more than they need, so the beekeeper can collect the excess for human consumption.
Bees exist in the wild, but they are also maintained by beekeepers. Some beekeepers are amateur beekeepers with just a few hives in their backyard. Others keep bees on a massive scale and rent out their bee hives to farmers when their crops need pollinating.
If you don’t know much about bees, I recommend that you read another article I wrote, Inside the Bee Hive, for a basic understanding of bee biology and behavior before continuing with this article.
What Is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?
Beekeepers are seeing an alarming trend. There is a great honey bee die-off. It has been given the name “colony collapse disorder” or CCD. No one knows for sure what causes it.
Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to the disappearance of most of the bees from a hive, leaving behind the queen, plenty of food, and un-hatched brood. You won’t see a noticeable number of dead bees in and around the hive—the bees have just disappeared.
This phenomena is not new, but it has increased at an alarming rate in recent years. It is occurring in the United States and throughout Europe.
The collapse of a bee colony is nothing new, but the scale of the problem is new. In the past, it has been given many names: disappearing disease, spring dwindle disease, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease. It began to be called Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006.
Beekeepers have been reporting the loss of about 30% of their colonies each year. It was particularly bad in 2013—that spring, on average, beekeepers lost 45% of their colonies. Many commercial beekeepers were forced out of business. Others were forced to raise their rates to farmers for the rental of the bees, which raised the cost of food production, which raised the cost of food.
Another issue of concern is that beekeepers are seeing some of their queen bees dying too soon. Each bee colony has one queen. A queen usually survives for two or three years. In recent years, beekeepers are seeing unexplainable abrupt deaths of the queen bees. Sometimes the queens die mid-summer, having survived only half a year. No one knows why.
What Causes CCD?
No one knows for sure what is causing this die-off. It appears likely that there is not one cause of CCD, but several interacting causal agents. There may be a synergistic effect—one agent alone may not be responsible, but when the colony is weakened or stressed by one factor, it is less resistant to other factors. It’s the perfect storm of the bee world.
Bees may be experiencing widespread failure of their immune systems. There are a variety of factors that could be contributing to a weakened immune system among bees. It is difficult to tease out cause and effect. For instance, does a pesticide poison a bee outright, or does it just weaken the bee so that it is more likely to succumb to a mite attack?
Bees are very dependent on their social, communication, and orientation skills. Perhaps a pesticide gets a bee confused, like a human gets when he gets drunk—this could affect the bee’s ability to find its way back to the hive, or it could interfere with the “waggle dance” that tells other bees where to find nectar.
It may also be that CCD is a broad designation for different causes. The end result is the same—the colony collapses, but causes are different for some hives than for others.
Here’s the Top Ten list of factors that may contribute to CCD. No one can say for sure which factors, if any, are responsible. It could even be something that is not on this list. Further, some beekeepers and scientists dispute that CCD is even happening.
Another issue: Many of these factors have been around for a long time. Why are they affecting the honey bees (if they are) just now?
1. Parasites, Pathogens, and Pests?
Honey bees have always had to cope with parasites, pathogens, and pests. For example,
- Foulbrood is a bacterium that attacks the bee larva.
- Tracheal mites attack the breathing tubes of the adult bees.
- Small hive beetles destroy the honeycombs and contaminate the honey, causing it to ferment. Bees will often abandon a hive that has become infested with these beetles.
- Another culprit is Varroa mites—Varroa destructor.
Varroa mites immigrated to the United States sometime in the '80s. These mites attach themselves to a honeybee’s body and suck its blood, which kills many bees and spreads disease to others. The mites can spread from one colony to another, wiping out whole populations of honey bees.
The use of pesticides often gets a large share of the blame for CCD. A commonly used type of pesticide—neonicotinoids—is considered safe for humans, but it may be extremely harmful to bees. (They have been banned in some European countries.)
However, the role of neonicotinoids is under debate. Some scientists say that the levels of neonicotinoids are not high enough in the environment to be responsible for the die-offs. It has been suggested that the pesticides don’t kill the bees outright, but impair their development and behavior or weaken them to the point where they are susceptible to other stressors.
3. Environmental Toxins?
In addition to pesticides, there are a lot of other toxins in the environment. Fertilizer run off may have contaminated the water supply.
Perhaps bees come into contact with or inhale other toxins from household or industrial sources while they are out foraging.
No specific toxins have been identified, but this possibility should be investigated further.
4. Climate Change?
Climate change has been causing extremely cold winters and scorching summers, as well as extreme droughts and floods. These climate extremes can stress the honey bees, leaving them more susceptible to the other environmental challenges.
Climate change also affects flowering plants that the bees depend upon. For instance, they may bloom too early before young honey bees can fly. Plants under stress from climate change may produce few or no flowers, which limits the bee’s source of nectar.
5. Inadequate Nutrition?
Bees need a varied diet of different pollens. While they go about collecting nectar, they also collect pollen. They store the pollen in little “pockets” on their legs called pollen baskets and take it back to the hive. They mix it with honey to make bee bread. This is another source of food for the bees during the winter. If bees cannot get enough pollen, or enough different types of pollen, this can contribute to malnutrition.
Monoculture, the practice of planting only one type of food crop, may limit the bees’ ability to have a varied diet.
6. Genetically Modified Crops?
Some suggest that the pollen from genetically modified crops—especially corn altered to produce Bt toxin that targets the bacteria that attacks corn—might be weakening the bees’ immune system.
7. A Lack of Genetic Diversity?
Some think that a lack of genetic diversity may be weakening bees.
Bees are a business. Many beekeepers start hives by buying a queen bee. Nearly all of the bees in the United States are descended from a limited number of queen bee lines. (There are a few hundred lines, but perhaps this is not enough to produce sufficient diversity.)
It is suggested that the limited gene pool may be the reason for degradation of the bees’ immune system and ability to survive.
8. Migratory Beekeeping?
It’s the case of the traveling beehives. Commercial beekeepers stack their hives onto tractor trailers and drive them thousands of miles away so they can be set up near the fields of farmers who need them for pollination. A crucial part of hive life is the bees' orientation to their hive. Having the hive moved every few months must be very difficult for the bees. (Even people don’t like relocating and adapting to a new neighborhood.)
Additionally, moving the hives around can help spread disease. An infected hive can spread disease when it intermingles in the fields with the local honey bees.
9. Poor Beekeeping Practices?
The various chemicals introduced into the hive to control disease and keep bees healthy might be upsetting the delicate balance of their immune systems.
Sometimes beekeepers split or combine hives, and this could disrupt the social cohesion of the bee colony.
Some beekeepers may supplement the bees' food supply with sugar water or high fructose corn syrup solutions when flowers that provide the nectar that bees ordinarily use to make honey are out of season. This may not be healthy for the bees.
I’m reminded of a line from an old commercial—“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
10. Electromagnetic Radiation?
Are cell phones driving the bees crazy? One theory is that the presence of electromagnetic fields from cell phone towers disrupts the bees' ability to find their way home.
Presently, this theory is given very little credence in the scientific community. But it may be worth further investigation in view of the major role electromagnetic fields play in the life of honey bees.
- Bees can detect the electrical field of flowers. They can “read” the nectar and pollen content of the flower.
- Bee bodies become electrically charged while flying. When they alight on a flower, this charge causes the pollen to “fly” from the flower and become attached to their bodies.
- When a bee does her waggle dance, she gives off an electrical field that the other honey bees can detect with their antennae.
Some say that the electromagnetic fields produced by our technologies are not a threat to bees because they operate on a different frequency than those produced by the bees and flowers. Others have done experiments showing the possibility of an effect. Studies going back to 2008 have found that bees are repelled by cell phone signals or have acted erratically around cell phones as if confused by the signals.
There is not enough evidence to say if this blanket of electromagnetic radiation that our communication technologies have created is contributing to CCD, but it is an intriguing theory. The time period matches up. CCD began increasing as cell phone use started to become widespread. Coincidence or cause and effect?
What Can Be Done to Prevent or Mitigate CCD?
The United States Department of Agriculture and some independent researchers have been studying the problem. The consensus of the research is that a variety of factors are responsible, acting in concert to stress and weaken the bees' immune systems.
As individuals, we can help by planting flowers and encouraging local governments to provide spaces for wild flowers in our communities. Many locales are allowing wild flowers to grow in medians and along the side of roads instead of mowing them down.
We can become eco-activists to help prevent climate change and the use of toxic chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers that pollute the environment.
We can buy organic fruits and vegetables, especially from local farmers, to help promote earth-friendly farming. Buy organic honey in order to support beekeepers who use best practices in the production of honey. (This honey also tastes better.)
You can also consider becoming an amateur beekeeper and follow best practices for beekeeping. Check the internet for a local Beekeepers Association to help you get started. It is a great way to get children interested in, and informed about, the life sciences.
Honey Love Urban Beekeepers: List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees
United States Department of Agriculture: Agriculture Research Services: Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder
United States Environmental Protection Agency: Colony Collapse Disorder
University of Florida: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in Honey Bees
Scientific Beekeeping: Sick Bees: Colony Collapse Revisited
Bee World: Electromagnetic Radiation and Bees
Take this poll, just for fun.
How often do you eat honey?
A Summary of Everything You Need to Know about CCD
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
I live in Mexico. What can I do to help the bees?
I don't have specific advice for Mexico. I think you should do the same thing as people who live in other areas, like planting a bee-friendly garden.
I also recommend finding a local beekeepers group. They would be your best bet for finding advice specific to your area.Helpful 1
© 2015 Catherine Giordano