Not the Bees!

By Michael Palmer

By Michael Palmer

Bees have had it rough lately. Over the winter of 2006-2007, beekeepers noticed that something was wrong with their bees. In 30-90% of their hives, worker bees were disappearing, leaving behind only the queen and a few nurse bees. This was the start of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), an ominous problem that we’re still struggling to understand and prevent today.

The Importance of Bees

Bees and beekeepers are vitally important to our current lifestyle. Every year beekeepers take their bees on the road to pollinate crops that provide food for the nation. One third of our food supply (worth more than $15 billion) is pollinated by bees. When a bee collects pollen and nectar from flowers some of the pollen will stick to her. When she visits the next flower, pollen is transferred. This fertilizes the flower and triggers the production of seeds, and the fruit that contains them. If the bees disappeared we would lose many of our apples, peaches, strawberries, onions, cucumbers, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables.

Of course, humans are rather fond of honey as well. There are over 100,000 beekeepers in the United States alone and in 2013 the honey crop was valued at $317.1 million dollars. This isn’t enough to meet demand, so we import honey from abroad as well. European beekeepers are experiencing a similar (but lesser) decline in productivity. Honey prices are already rising in response to shortages created by CCD. Price increases will become even more dramatic if bees continue to struggle.

Varroa  mites on a honeybee pupa

Varroa mites on a honeybee pupa

Why Is This Happening?

CCD has been occurring for almost ten years but scientists are still struggling to understand the cause. Possibilities being investigated are:

1.       Parasites/Diseases: Varroa mites have been found in many colonies affected by CCD. The fungal infection Nosema has also been considered.

2.       Management: Bees that are overcrowded or fed from only a single food source can become malnourished. Transported bees may become stressed or carry diseases to local bee populations.

3.       Environment: Climate change has shifted the timing of flower blooms and disrupted normal bee feeding habits.

4.       Pesticides: Pesticides have been implicated in several studies of CCD. Neonicotinoids are the primary suspects.

Debate and research is still ongoing, but something has become clear: It isn’t just one factor stressing bee populations, it’s many. Pesticides, even when used below lethal levels, harm bee immune systems. Lack of adequate nutrition makes bees even weaker. These stresses all leave bees more susceptible to diseases and other maladies, like mites and Nosema.

If CCD is indeed caused by a painful synergy of stressors it becomes a very complicated malady to treat. It may not be enough to simply feed bees differently or limit pesticide use. The world is changing due to human inhabitation. Temperatures are rising, seasons are shifting, and habitats are diminishing. It won’t be easy to make the world a more pleasant place for bees, but if we don’t want to lose a third of our food supply, it’s important that we try.

Courtesy of CheepShot

Courtesy of CheepShot

Want to help bees yourself?  These are some ways to give your local buzzers a boost:

  •  Plant bee-friendly flowers and herbs. Monoculture-based farms have led to a decline in plant diversity and the foods bees have available to them. Adding plants that bees like to your garden, lawn, or planter can help support healthy bee populations!
  • Let your weeds shine. Dandelions and clover make great bee meals. Consider letting some grow in your yard, at least while they’re in bloom.
  •  Limit pesticide use. Reduce use of pesticides and other chemicals, especially when flowers are in bloom. Even if you only treat part of your lawn, pesticides can drift and contaminate nearby flowers.
  • Buy local fruits, vegetables, and honey to support nearby beekeepers. Cheap imported honey is often contaminated with antibiotics and heavy metals. Yuck!
  • Set up a bee watering station. Just a small bowl of water will do. Hard-working forager bees can get very thirsty!
  • If a swarm of honey bees settle on your property, don’t call an exterminator. Call a beekeeper! Many beekeepers will happily relocate honey bee colonies for free.

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow