The Disappearance of the Honey Bee

Leslie Orndoff
December 7, 2011
Filed under Green Living

Bees have long held a place of reverence and importance among many societies both ancient and modern.  Ancient Egyptians believed bees were born when the sun god, Ra, shed tears.  In the Ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world, bees were thought to be the bridge from the living world to the underworld.  In modern times bees evoke a visceral response; they are feared yet venerated for their tireless work pollinating our crops. Bees pollinate 80 percent of flowering crops, contributing $15 billion in agriculture revenue annually.   Monetary significance aside, they are a vital part of humanity’s survival. However, this vital aspect of our survival is inexplicably and abruptly disappearing.  Once thriving, healthy colonies are now being abandoned without obvious cause or provocation. This tragedy, which began occurring in 2006, is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Theories attempting to explain this phenomenon are varied.  Some scientists attribute the collapse to malnutrition, lack of genetic biodiversity, or parasites and pathogens. Others suggest over use of pesticides and toxins in the environment.  Another theory put forward is that modern day bee keeping practices are the culprit.  Whatever cause or combination of causes, honey bee populations are being decimated worldwide.  Without action, the consequences could be devastating.

There are approximately 3.2 million honey bee colonies maintained by beekeepers in the United States. A large percentage of these are used commercially.  When bees are used solely for commercial pollination, their foraging is limited to specific crops like blueberries, almonds, or tomatoes.  This lack of diversity in their diet can lead to malnutrition, causing either the death or evacuation of the hive.

Another possible explanation for CCD is lack of biodiversity among queen bees.  In the US, nearly all the queen bees descend from only one of several hundred breeder queens.  This practice produces a limited gene pool from which to draw, degrading the quality of the queens over time.  This degradation can lead to a greater susceptibility to disease and pests, weakening the hive as a whole.

Pests, parasites, and pathogens such as American foulbrood, tracheal mites, and the Vaorroa mite are likely contributors to CCD.  These pests wreak havoc on the hives they attack; the Vaorroa mite not only causes damage as a parasite, it also transmits viruses.  A virus that can be particularly deadly to the bee is Israeli Acute Paralysis.  It causes the bees wings to shiver, leading to paralysis, then eventually death.  To prevent these conditions, beekeepers often turn to pesticides to keep hives free from parasites and pathogen carrying pests.  It is theorized that pesticide use both in and out of the hive may be degrading the health and productivity of honeybees.

Toxins in the environment are being considered as a possible cause of CCD.  From heavy pesticide use on crops, to chemical runoff, bees are exposed to a variety of different pollutants.  One pesticide in particular, Clothianidin, is highly toxic to bees.  In July, 2007 Clothianidin was applied to corn in Germany that had become infested with root worm.  In May of the following year, 330 million bees abruptly died.  According to The German Research for Cultivated Plants, 29 out of 30 dead bees tested died as a result of contact with Clothianidin.  It is now banned in Germany yet, despite its obvious impact on bee’s health, it is still in use in the United States.

Honeybees aren’t native to North America.  Most were brought here by European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Crops that are native to this continent, like corn and wheat, do not depend on bees for pollination.  However, apples, zucchini, cherries, almonds, and a large variety of other fruits and vegetables rely on the bee in part or in whole to pollinate, thus, propagate them.  The feral, or wild, honey bee has been virtually wiped out due to disease, loss of habitat, pesticides, and mites.  Therefore, farmers are relying more and more on commercial beekeepers.  These hives are transported from farm to farm, often over wide distances so the bees can pollinate the flowering fruit and vegetable plants.  It is the stress of this constant movement that has led some to believe that commercial beekeeping is a possible contributor to CCD.

Bees are not only industrious, selfless, and masters at their craft, they are essential to humanity’s survival.  In more recent years the rate of CCD has seemed to slow, however, we are still in a precarious position and must remain vigilant.  Without the honey bee life would not only be less sweet it would be virtually impossible to sustain.

For information about how average people can help the honey bee, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/silence-of-the-bees/how-can-you-help-the-bees/36.

For an up to date report on recent honeybee losses, go to http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/bees/2011-honey-bee-winter-loss-survey.

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