Note: this is the next in a series of blog posts from our student-runChamplain College Publishing Initiative. Look for these and others as we bee-come more aware of our flying friends.
In 2006, the media buzzed with talk about the sudden and seemingly inexplicable mass disappearance of honey bees. This might have gone largely unnoticed by the general public if not for one particular oddity: not only were bees dying, they were also abandoning their colonies in droves, leaving hive after hive virtually empty. The Environmental Protection Agency labeled the problem Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), describing it as occurring “when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear.”
The disappearances severely affected the bee populations of North America and parts of Europe, with individual beekeepers losing 30 to 90 percent of their honey bees. Ireland alone reported a total loss of more than 50 percent of its colonies. These deaths were inconsistent with typical winter population decline, indicating that outside forces were to blame for the higher-than-average losses.
This wasn’t the first time honey bees faced death on such a large scale. But scientists realized in 2006 that it was happening with alarming frequency.
What are the causes of CCD?
While there appears to be no single cause of CCD, researchers think several factors are at play.
One is the varroa mite, a small, invasive parasite that inhabits every continent but Australia. The mite attaches itself to an adult bee, where it can live for about two years by drinking the bee’s blood, transmitting viruses and diseases to the bee in the process. Female varroa mites lay their eggs with the bee larvae. Once the mites hatch, they begin to feed off the developing bees.
According to the BBC, it only takes “2,000 varroa mites [to] kill a colony of 30,000 honey bees,” so it is important to remove the mites quickly. The most effective solution has been a neurotoxin that, when administered in small doses, will kill the varroa mite and not the bee. But varroa mites have now built up immunity to the toxin.
Scientists are now testing alternative processes and different chemicals to rid hives of the mites. One method developed by Bayer, called CheckMite+ covers beehive entrances with plastic rings coated in the acaricide fluvalinate. Whenever a honey bee passes through the ring, the acaricide will brush against the bee and poison any mite that bites it without harming the bee.
The widespread use of systemic pesticides on crops has also contributed to the declining bee population. Beehives are not stationary. Beekeepers transport them between multiple locations in order to pollinate more crops, many of which are treated with pesticides that are harmful to insect pollinators. The transportation alone can cause the bees stress if they are poorly managed during the move, or if they are moved too often. Compounded with the frequent change of habitat, the bees may receive improper nutrition depending on the crops and plants available to them during the move.
What would happen if the bees disappeared?
Apiculture (or beekeeping) is important to both the environment and the economy. In North America alone, honey bees are responsible for pollinating, and therefore producing, no less than 90 different commercially grown crops. Put another way, 35 percent of the world’s food production is being pollinated by insects. What would happen should that system suddenly fail?
A 2005 estimate placed the value of crops pollinated by honey bees somewhere around US$200 billion. In Britain alone, they are worth about £200 million, or US$307,546,000. Beekeepers in the United States have lost about 10 million beehives, each worth approximately $200, resulting in the need to quickly rebuild the hives or to rent beehives. The rental cost of hives to pollinate almonds—a crop that is pollinated almost entirely by bees—surged from its 2003 cost of $50 to around $175 in 2009.
Although other pollinators (such as bumblebees, hoverflies, and certain types of wasps) exist, they do not pollinate plants on the same scale as honey bees. Crop failure would be inevitable because modern agriculture has simply grown too large for non-honey bee pollinators to keep up.
What is being done to remedy CCD?
The United States Department of Agriculture and the EPA are conducting studies to determine the specific causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, as well as the effects of pathogens, pesticides, and stress on honey bees. These organizations are also working to improve bee health and the health of the environments they inhabit and pollinate .
Learn more about our College Apiary.