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May 07, 2007

Colony Collapse Environment  Science/Technology

From GNN, a long survey article on Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious malady that's wiping out large numbers of honeybees. Excerpts:

[A] strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time. It has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, by the apiculturalists and apiarists who are scrambling to understand and hopefully stop it. First reported last autumn in the U.S., the list of afflicted countries has now expanded to include several in Europe, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, and possibly Canada.

Apparently unknown before this year, CCD is said to follow a unique pattern with several strange characteristics. Bees seem to desert their hive or forget to return home from their foraging runs. The hive population dwindles and then collapses once there are too few bees to maintain it. Typically, no dead bee carcasses lie in or around the afflicted hive, although the queen and a few attendants may remain.

The defect, whatever it is, afflicts the adult bee. Larvae continue to develop normally, even as a hive is in the midst of collapse. Stricken colonies may appear normal, as seen from the outside, but when beekeepers look inside the hive box, they find a small number of mature bees caring for a large number of younger and developing bees that remain. Normally, only the oldest bees go out foraging for nectar and pollen, while younger workers act as nurse bees caring for the larvae and cleaning the comb. A healthy hive in mid-summer has between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.

Perhaps the most ominous thing about CCD, and one of its most distinguishing characteristics, is that bees and other animals living nearby refrain from raiding the honey and pollen stored away in the dead hive. In previously observed cases of hive collapse (and it is certainly not a rare occurrence) these energy stores are quickly stolen. But with CCD the invasion of hive pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle is noticeably delayed.

Among the possible culprits behind CCD are: a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, a pesticide (or combination of pesticides), GMO crops bearing pesticide genes, erratic weather. [...]

[A]utopsies of CCD bees showed higher than normal levels of fungi, bacteria and other pathogens, as well as weakened immune systems. It appears as if the bees have got the equivalent of AIDS. [...]

Bees certainly are important, and it will get ugly if we lose them. “It’s not the staples,” said Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that’s what it would be like” without honeybee pollination. [...]

Honey bees are used commercially to pollinate about one third of crop species in the U.S. This includes almonds, broccoli, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries. [...]

Recent military research at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center claims to have narrowed the likely cause of CCD to a virus, a micro-parasite or both. [...]

[A] suspicious fungus was also discovered in them, suggesting the possibility that the fungus is either an immunosuppressive factor or the fatal pathogen that kills the bees. [...]

Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist [in Canada]. In a widely circulated email, she wrote:

I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.

Her email recommends a visit to the Bush Bees Web site at bushfarms.com. Here, Michael Bush felt compelled to put a message to the beekeeping world right on the top page:

Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I’m happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won’t hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I’ve gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren’t aware, and I wasn’t for a long time, the foundation in common usage...produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. [...]

Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. [...]

It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time. [...]

This conclusion is not surprising, considering how the practice of beekeeping has been made ultra-efficient in a competitive world run by free market forces...Rare is the beekeeper that does not need pesticide treatments and other techniques falling under the rubric of "factory farming." [...]

Bees are finely tuned machines, much more robot-like than your average species. They operate pretty much like the Borg of Star Trek fame. A honey bee cannot exist as an individual, and this is why some biologists speak of them as super-organisms. They are sensitive barometers of environmental pollution, quite useful for monitoring pesticide, radionuclide, and heavy metal contamination. They respond to a vide variety of pollutants by dying or markedly changing their behavior....Some pesticides are exceptionally harmful to honey bees, killing individuals before they can return to the hive.

Not surprisingly, the use of one or more new pesticides was, and likely remains, on the short list of likely causes of CCD. But more than pesticides could potentially be harming bees. Some scientists suspect global warming. Temperature plays an integral part in determining mass behavior of bees. [...]

Erratic weather patterns caused by global warming could play havoc with bees’ sensitive cycles...[A Michigan beekepper] thinks CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness.

[A]nother possibility with CCD is that the missing bees left their hives to look for new quarters because the old hives became undesirable, perhaps from contamination of the honey. This phenomenon, known as absconding, normally occurs only in the spring or summer, when there is an adequate food supply. But if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did last fall in the U.S.,...the bees are unlikely to survive.

A bee colony is a fine-tuned system, and a lot could conceivably go wrong...[One] theory holds that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bee navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way home. German research has shown that bees behave differently near power lines. Now, a preliminary study has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. [...]

It should be noted that the CCD Working Group at Penn State believes cell phones are very unlikely to be causing the problem. Nor are they interested in the possibility that GMO crops are responsible. Although GMO crops can contain genes to produce pesticides, some of which may harm bees, the distribution of CCD cases does not appear to correlate with GMO crop plantings. [...]

[O]ther pollinators are facing problems too...[S]everal of the U.K.’s 25 species [of bumblebees] are endangered, and three have gone extinct in recent years....[T]he process is caused by “pesticides and agricultural intensification” which could have a “devastating knock-on effect on agriculture.” The disappearance of wildflower species has also been implicated in the British bumblebee decline. [...]

[In other words,] it’s an ecosystem thing. As with honeybees and CCD, the root of the bumblebee problem lies in our modern rationalist drive toward endlessly ordering the world around us. [...]

This truth may be generalized to most facets of our agricultural existence; the bees are just a warning. Wherever you look, pests are getting stronger as the life forms we depend on get weaker. Adding more chemicals isn’t going to help for much longer. [...]

“There used to be a lot more regulation than there is today,” says Arizona beekeeper Victor Kaur. “People import bees and bring new diseases into the country. One might be colony collapse disorder.”

“The bees are dying, and I think people are to blame,” is how Kaur puts it simply. “Bee keeping is much more labor intensive now than it was 15 years ago. It’s a dying profession,” he eulogizes. “The average age of a beekeeper is 62, and there are only a couple of thousand of us left. There are only about 2.5 million hives left...It’s too much work.” [Emphasis added]

Free market enthusiasts take note. Factory farming and other forms of profit-driven monoculture are, in the long term, suicidal. (Not to mention, murderous.) But the market rewards them in the short term. The big commercial monoculture players displace everyone else, and by the time we wake up and begin to realize what we have lost, it's gone. The fatal flaw of monoculture: when something goes wrong, it goes wrong everywhere, all at once.

The fundamental problem is a mindset that treats Nature as a dead thing to be engineered and manipulated, as if it were a machine to be pushed until it breaks, then thrown away. That mindset, together with the tunnel vision created by the ferociously single-minded pursuit of profit.

Greed kills. On a larger and larger scale. Inevitably.

Posted by Jonathan at May 7, 2007 11:03 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Comments

Great post! The bees here in Maine have depleted to the point that it is noticeable, but not as bad as what is being reported in other states.

The right wingers in this country do not understand that if one species die off other species grow stronger and depending on what species are involved it could have either negative or positive effects on the environment. They don't care about it and that is bad for us.

Is it pesticides that are killing our bees? Could be. George Bush and his GOPers in the House & Senate for years have rolled back tons of major environmental policies and these actions are having a major impact on our environment, our weather, our bees, and our food. Sick!

Posted by: KayInMaine at May 8, 2007 08:59 PM

Great post! The bees here in Maine have depleted to the point that it is noticeable, but not as bad as what is being reported in other states.

The right wingers in this country do not understand that if one species die off other species grow stronger and depending on what species are involved it could have either negative or positive effects on the environment. They don't care about it and that is bad for us.

Is it pesticides that are killing our bees? Could be. George Bush and his GOPers in the House & Senate for years have rolled back tons of major environmental policies and these actions are having a major impact on our environment, our weather, our bees, and our food. Sick!

Posted by: at May 8, 2007 08:59 PM

My garden was pitiful last year. I had 6 zucchini plants -- they flowered but there were no bees to pollinate them. Before I had zucchini coming out my ears, giving a lot of it away to the neighbors. Not last year. It is really frightening what is happening.

Posted by: Asta at May 9, 2007 09:09 AM