THE VANISHING OF THE BEES
Entomologists are currently studying the reasons behind the enormous bee die-off happening worldwide. A recent USDA-sponsored survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership has found that the current rate of mortality for bees in managed hives was 44% in 2016, up 3.5% from the 2014-2015 year.
WHAT IS COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER (CCD)?
The term "Colony Collapse Disorder", or CCD, is often incorrectly used as a blanket term to refer to the trend of bee decline. However, this decline has a number of causes and takes a number of forms. CCD only refers to phenomenon characterized by the sudden -- overnight, in some cases -- loss of the vast majority of the hive, leaving a queen, full brood (larvae) cells, and full honey stores behind. In collapsed hives, no dead bees are found, puzzling scientists and posing a major challenge to the study of the disease. The USDA has been studying the phenomenon since 2009, when it became apparent that Colony Collapse was not something that would disappear on its own.
CCD, while alarming, is not the main reason behind the mass die-off of the bees, and is much less common today than when we first started hearing about it in the media.
CAUSES OF HONEY BEE POPULATION DECLINE
Research on the possible causes of honey bee population decline is currently ongoing, and there has been progress! Most recent evidence points to a combination of factors as the culprit -– according to the USDA, these factors include “parasites and pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and sublethal exposure to pesticides.”
Current scientific research indicates that parasites, and the diseases they carry, are the main threat to the lives of honey bees. The most dangerous parasite threatening beehives currently is a mite with a descriptive name: Varroa destructor. Commonly known as Varroa mites, these parasites often infect bees before they can even emerge as adults. Their parasitic relationship with the bees is similar to that of ticks and mammals; the main issue lies in the diseases the mites carry, such as Deformed Wing Virus. When a hive is already weakened, a Varroa mite infestation can wipe it out. Other parasites involved in collapsing hives include the small hive beetle, Aethina tumida; and Nosema spp., a microsporidian gut parasite.
Weakened immune systems leave hives susceptible to bacterial and viral diseases as well. Two of the most well known diseases to infect bees are American Foulbrood and Deformed Wing Virus. American Foulbrood affects larvae less than a day old, preventing them from surviving until adulthood, while Deformed Wing Virus is transmitted through Varroa mites and prevents the bees from being able to fly.
Some human farming practices are making it more challenging for the bees to forage a well-balanced diet, such as monoculture farming. This is when only one crop is grown on a piece of land, and it limits the bees’ diet to one type of pollen for extended periods of time. Think of it as if a human was limited to eating only strawberries for three months -- not very healthy! These malnourished bees are more susceptible to chemical pesticides, parasites, and pathogens, as their immune systems aren't as strong.
Pesticides are often blamed as the main cause of the bees' struggles. Scientists are continuing to research the effects different types of pesticides and application methods are having on the health of the bees, however at this point, most of the research is pointing to parasites, diseases, and poor nutrition as the leading causes of bee population decline.
The most studied chemical culprit is a class of agricultural pesticides called "neonicotinoids." These chemicals are systemic, meaning the plant takes them into its vascular system, and spreads it to all tissues. They are effective after only one application, and affect only invertebrates, meaning they are less susceptible to runoff, and less dangerous to humans, birds, livestock, etc. They're very popular. In theory, the pesticide shouldn't affect bees, who are eating the pollen and nectar, not the plant's tissue. However, studies have found trace amounts of pesticide in pollen grains. Bees bring pollen back to their hives for food - one pollen grain with trace chemicals wouldn't be an issue, but scientists have found that the chemicals accumulate to critical levels within the beeswax. Pesticides also interfere with bee communication, which is almost entirely reliant on chemical and physical signals. The chemicals in pesticides have been shown to alter their foraging behavior, their communication, and their larval development.
Pesticides lower the bees' immune systems, weakening the hive and leaving it wide open to parasitic infection.
I heard that cell phones and may have something to do with it, is this true?
Researchers have ruled out cell phones as a potential cause of bee decline. The idea that cell phones may contribute to colony losses originated with a study done in the EU in 2010. It suggested that radiation from the towers altered the electromagnetic field of the earth and, in turn, the bee’s homing ability. There is no real evidence that honey bees rely on the electromagnetic field to navigate, and many apiaries that are still experiencing losses are in rural areas where cell phone service is spotty or absent.
Our information is sourced from recent peer-reviewed publications, the USDA's annual reports on honey bee health, and the USDA's most recent information on the productivity and estimated pollination effectiveness of bees.
Emily Erickson, graduate student of Entomology at Penn State helped research and write this post.
For more information, check out:
Heid, Markham. "You Asked: Are the Honeybees Still Disappearing?" Time. 15 April, 2015. http://time.com/3821467/bees-honeybees-environment/
Moye, David. "Cell Phones Don't Kill Bees (STUDY)." The Huffington Post. 26 November, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/19/cell-phones-kill-bees-study_n_863019.html
"USDA Releases Results of New Survey on Honey Bee Colony Health." USDA. 12 May, 2016. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2016/05/0114.xml
Wright, Matthew. "Nation's Beekeepers Lost 44% of Managed Hives in 2015-16." Bee Informed Partnership. 10 May 2016. https://beeinformed.org/2016/05/10/nations-beekeepers-lost-44-percent-of-bees-in-2015-16/