On Friday, I had a question from "The Big Guy" about Colony Collapse Disorder among honey bees. Since this blog is titled 'Sports and Swarms,' I figured I would post some more about bees. And Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is at the apex of the honey bee topic list.
First of all, what is the big deal about CCD? Who cares if a few bees die, right? Well, it is a big deal. About 35% of the food we eat, $215 billion world wide, $15 billion US, would not exist without pollination. The planet used to have thousands of pollinators, but with habitat destruction, pesticide use and industrial farming, those insects are unable to meet industry needs. Honey bees are the resilient silent partner in the agriculture industry meeting all the needs of the backyard gardener and the publicly traded farming conglomerate. Until now.
CCD is an affliction particularly targeting commercial bee keepers. I am a really low level hobby bee keeper with 3 hives. Some of the folks in my local bee club have up to 50 hives spread over many properties. In order for a person or business to be considered a commercial bee keeper, they must have 500 hives or more. Most commercial bee keepers are really not in the business for honey - although it can be lucrative - they're in it for pollination services. Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota is the largest bee keeping business in the country. Last year, Adee lost 28,000 of its 70,000 hives. That translates into about 1 billion honey bees who lost their way and never came back to the hive. This is a global issue. The UK has recently seen losses of 30% while Italy has seen up to 50% of their bees disappear.
The symptoms of CCD are really odd. A bee keeper usually finds a hive full of honey and young bee larvae, but no adult bees. It's as if the bees departed the hive and got lost, never making their way back home. Cell towers were first to be scrutinized. Genetically modified crops were next. Both of those theories have been ruled out. It is becoming clear that CCD is not a singular issue. It appears to be a host of issues that are gathering to form the perfect storm. Everything from fungus and pesticides to nutrition and the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus are combining to weaken and disorient the honey bee.
Neonicotinoids is the latest culprit under the microscope. The sole purpose of this pesticide is to affect the central nervous system of an insect. Sounds familiar when you realize that the CCD hives don't have any adult bees in them and that the mode of action for neonicotinoids is to cause paralysis, with death following shortly afterwards. Bayer (yes, the aspirin company) is currently in the cross hairs of some environmental groups since they are a major producer of pesticides with neonicotinoids.
What's next? Congress has recently allocated a few million dollars for research into CCD. This was after Haagen-Dazs donated $250,000 for honey bee research (some going to Penn State University). Haagen-Dazs has 40% of its flavors reliant on the honey bee's pollination of nuts and fruits. More importantly, there is a trend in Europe where countries are starting to ban the use of neonicotinoids while the EPA is under pressure in the US to release studies done on the pesticide in 2003. Meanwhile, commercial bee keepers are starting to gravitate to organic farms alleviating the fear of pesticide ingestion while the hobby bee keeper is slowly moving to a non-treatment approach when dealing with pests. I personally have made a choice not to use insect treatments in my hives. I feel that bees need to breed themselves out of their own problems, or the problems humans have created for them. It may affect my honey production, but, so be it.
Some facts in this blog are from "...Or Not To Bee" by Rowan Jacobsen, Eating Well - March/April 2009