The mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder has brought honeybees into the public eye. But the story of their plight — and its impact — is more complicated.
This might be one of the most interesting, disturbing and puzzling stories to come along in a long time.
In early 2007 the news broke that beekeepers across the United States had made a surprising discovery.
Bees are mysteriously dying.
It’s called colony collapse disorder. Beekeepers in 27 states report disappearing honey bees.
Pollination by bees produces 30% of our food.
Congress is holding hearings. Even the Vice-president has been briefed.
The end of honey bees, the end of pollination, a dire threat to crop the world over.
Today, what’s happening to the bees and what’s really at stake.
The buzz began with these bees at Dave Hackenberg’s bee farm, ground zero for the mystery of the missing bees.
In November of 2006 Dave Hackenberg discovered that nearly all of the 400 beehives in his Florida bee yard were empty.
So this is what you call a dead hive.
Yeah. Empty box. No bees.
The veteran beekeeper had seen bees die before, but never like this.
I keep asking myself, what am I doing wrong? I mean, it’s so… It’s a mind-boggling thing, I mean it really is a mind-boggling thing.
Hackenberg contacted scientists at Pennsylvania State University. They were intrigued by the beekeeper’s story.
And I said, well bring up some bees and we’ll check it out, and so indeed he brought up some bees, and those bees got sampled and we found all these things I couldn’t explain and I couldn’t understand. And certainly nothing popped out. And then it became apparent that this was happening in different parts of the country.
VanEngelsdorp helped give the die-off a name, colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Suddenly, bees were big news.
The population of honey bees down roughly 25% across this country.
It’s a simple equation. Without bees to pollinate many plants, the plants just don’t grow.
The fear is that most of the honey bees will be dead.
Dad, we have to do something. All the bees are dying.
Oh, no! No bees.
Colony collapse disorder. The mystery fascinated the public and strange explanations soon began to spread.
You buy that this could be a Russian plot?
The rapture, God calling other bees back to heaven?
I don’t think he needs them up there.
But much of the television coverage missed an important bit of back story. Beekeepers had been struggling to maintain their hives ever since the 1980’s, when the invasive varroa mite arrived in the US.
We have a saying, before the varroa mite you can be a beehaver, after the varroa mite you have to be a beekeeper, because you have to manage your bees.
Varroa mites infest and slowly weaken colonies, but Hackenberg’s CCD losses came quickly to colonies that appeared healthy.
A number of us thought that we might be dealing with a new pathogen, a novel pathogen. So if we can find that novel pathogen, let’s say a virus or something, then that might explain, that was the missing link.
The only thing we could say about CCD bees and it was a very distinct thing was that they were really sick, they sort of had every disease going.
One theory was that stress was making bees sick. To meet the growing pollination demands of large-scale agriculture, commercial beekeepers trucked their bees from state to state to pollinate crop after crop.
Some of us are running these bees two, three, four crops a year, pollinating, and so they don’t get a chance to ever get rejuvenated and it used to be you can get them on some for clean food for two or three weeks in the way they go, but pasture land and general it’s running out because of land being turned into crop land and so we’re running out of places to go with the bees.
More crops mean more pesticides and many beekeepers have blamed CCD on neonicotinoids, widely used chemicals that are absorbed by plants and can accumulate in pollen and nectar.
The European Union voted to suspend the use of neonicotinoids because of possible links to bee collapse.
The EPA is reviewing its pesticides but the direct link to CCD has not been established. Indeed most scientists now believe that no single factor can fully explain the phenomenon.
We are probably dealing with multiple factors coming together to cause a set of symptoms that we call CCD. Personally I would fall back to nutritional stress and maybe pesticide stress leading to pathogen outbreak, I call it. As to the pathogen or the types of pathogens that are there don’t really matter that much but the bees are in a weakened state and that allows these pathogens to multiply and cause, cause the bees to die.
Bees have this behaviour called altruistic suicide. What happens is that the bee somehow knows she’s sick, flies away from the hive so she doesn’t in fact infect her nest mates. So we think that explains this behaviour of collapse, why we are not finding dead bees and why we see this quick spiral down in the population.
In South America right now and moving north to North America, there’s a new strain of bees that…
Colony collapse was not the first time bees had captured the public attention.
This is the African killer bee, in the last four years responsible for the death of hundreds of people in South America.
In the 1970’s fears over the spread of Africanised honey bees gave bees a bad name. But since the onset of colony collapse disorder, bees have become a symbol of environmental protection.
If you couldn’t understand that they were singing, all we’re saying is give bees a chance.
When people saw the bees they said, ah, ah, here’s something that I can really do something significant. You can save the bees by actually getting some bees. Hobby beekeeper Jim Fisher keeps about two dozen beehives on Manhattan rooftops. And he teaches beekeeping classes in Central Park and Brooklyn. He says enrollment surged in the wake of the CCD mystery.
Hundreds of people, more people that can fit in a room started attending the classes.
They call it urban beekeeping and it’s getting a ton of buzz.
Pre media blitz prior to pre CCD beekeeping was a hobby taken up by retired white blue-collar guys for the most part. The demographic immediate became a lot younger, a lot more female.
They got a good home, they got lots of comb. Before I started, I, I was nervous because of all the diseases but as a community across the country we’re eventually going to figure it out and being part of that process I think that is for the common good.
There’s been a couple of silver linings on the CCD story. One is just public awareness about the role that pollinators play in the food supply. It’s also brought new researchers from other areas.
Scientists are attaching tiny back packs to honey bees in order to study them.
These radio frequency ID tags track bees as they move through the landscape.
To help better understand the causes of colony collapse disorder, at Harvard University scientists are taking a different approach. They’ve engineered the robo-bee. It’s still in working progress and there are several other potential uses, but these miniature robots could one day assist with crop pollination. But the dire predictions of falling bee populations leading to a food crisis have not come to pass. Beekeepers replace their dead hives, so there are just as many honey bee colonies in the US today as there were in 2006.
We are not worried at all the bees are going to go extinct in this country or in the world. What we are worried about it is that we will have the beekeepers.
We are buying bees to keep our head above water. It’s not the basic beekeeping that I remember as a kid, then as a young guy running bees, you know. It’s….There’s a whole lot of things that have changed. There’s lots of days I would like to pull the plug and I would just walk away but I like what I’m doing, I mean, you know. It’s something that gets in your system and doesn’t go away.
Today honey bee colonies continue to die off in large numbers but the CCD mystery has a new twist.
We haven’t seen as much CCD over the past few years. The classic symptom of CCD has changed, or disappeared but we’re still losing a lot of colonies, and that can be for a variety of reasons. Parasitic varroa mite, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition, nutritional stress and in particular we’ve been seeing a lot of queen loss. So we’re doing some queen experiments here so there’s a multitude of things that beekeepers are facing to try and keep colonies alive in addition to CCD