The answer to why the bees are dying is complicated to say the least. There are multiple factors to the weakening of global bee populations and multiple perspectives on why the problem is getting worse. While most of the conclusive evidence puts heavy blame on pesticides and fungicides, there are other factors that visibly contribute such as breeding practices, agricultural practices, and climate change.
The reality in such a complicated situation is that the help and healing must also come from a variety of sources and techniques. Moreover, it is important to note here that the threats listed below affect more than just the honey bees. Many other important species of bees, insects, and wildlife are being challenged by similar collapses. Read over this material to get a simpler, clearer context of the Colony Collapse Disorder and visit the rest of our site to find how you can help the people who are closest to the bees.
The heavy use of lightly regulated pesticides and fungicides is the leading theory behind the disappearance of the bees. Decades of research have focused on finding which specific chemical(s) are the most dangerous, initially settling on a category of pesticides know as Neonicotinoids. This line of pesticides has been widely used since its release in the 1990’s when it was hailed for its effectiveness. The compounds are water soluble and absorb into the plant’s vascular system, making it toxic from root to flower. The residue remains in the soil and groundwater for years!
Neonicotinoids were banned in the European Union until more was known about their effects, but they evaded a federal ban in the United States because their low level of toxicity gives them the guise of being harmless to bees. They have not been directly connected to Colony Collapse Disorder, but they have been linked to reducing the bees’ ability to navigate, forage, communicate, reproduce, and eat. However the real issue is not what happens in the first 36 hours of ingestion, it is in the long term effects of residual chemicals on the bees’ immune system, making them vulnerable to all of the other threats that we will discuss below.
More recent research on pesticides and fungicides has revealed that a blend of all these deadly chemicals is creating a perfect storm for the bees. Each one of these chemicals plays a role in weakening the bees immune system making them as much as three times more vulnerable to mites and other parasites which are ingested by the insects. Fungicides are simply picked up along the way in massive quantities and carried into the hives. It is not news that conventional farming in the United States is centered around growing vast amounts of one or two crops for sale on the national market. Large scale farmers have had to go to great extremes to compensate for the poor soil health, poor biodiversity, and resilient pests that come as a cause of this monoculture system. The land is constantly pushing back to recreate its natural diversity and our resistance to this process has resulted in more than just harmful chemicals.
It is not news that conventional farming in the United States is centered around growing vast amounts of one or two crops for sale on the national market. Large scale farmers have had to go to great extremes to compensate for the poor soil health, poor biodiversity, and resilient pests that come as a cause of this monoculture system. The land is constantly pushing back to recreate its natural diversity and our resistance to this process has resulted in more than just harmful chemicals.
The practice of monoculture is taking away from the variety of food that bees have to eat. Like all creatures, bees scour the land around them for a variety of sources and nutrients, but in the land of conventional farms the bees find only one or two edible crops. As Matina Donaldson-Matasci detailed in Scientific American Blog, the bees in large monoculture fields don’t even bother to signal to the hives where all the good flowers are. It is as if they are literally unexcited by the food in front of them. When those crops are harvested or die, the bees are left with nothing, but an empty field. As anyone would guess, the native bee populations don’t survive long.
This has lead to the fascinating world of traveling bees. How can we fix this problem? A recent report released by the USDA and the EPA suggests we need to approach it from a number of angles, including better control of diseases and parasites and more research on the effects of potentially harmful pesticides. And—I think, crucially—we need to figure out how to quit moving so many bee colonies over such long distances. Instead, we should let the bees make the most of their amazing capacity to search the landscape and go where the flowers are. That means making a broader diversity of flowers available to bees on a scale where they can really take advantage of them. We’ve got to convince farmers to plant a wider variety of crops and let weeds grow on crop margins, and persuade landowners to maintain wild habitat near agricultural land. That’s going to be hard. But if it means that beekeepers can maintain big, healthy colonies of honey bees—and that farmers can attract native bees to pollinate their crops as well—wouldn’t it be worth it?
Varroa mites were first reported in Kentucky in the Bluegrass region of the Commonwealth in 1991. They have spread to and become a major pest of honey bees in many states since their introduction into Florida in the mid 1980’s.
Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that attack both the adults and the brood, with a distinct preference for drone brood. They suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the life span of the ones on which they feed. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Untreated infestations of varroa mites that are allowed to increase will kill honeybee colonies. Losses due to these parasitic mites are often confused with causes such as winter mortality and queenlessness if the colonies are not examined for mites.
The adult female mites are reddish-brown in color, flattened, oval, and measure about 1 to 1.5 mm across. They have eight legs. They are large enough to be seen with the unaided eye on the thorax, most commonly, and on the bee’s abdomen. Their flattened shape allows them to hide between the bee’s abdominal segments. This mite is often confused with the bee louse, but the bee louse has only six legs, is more circular in shape, and is slightly larger.
Mites develop on the bee brood. A female mite will enter the brood cell about one day before capping and be sealed in with the larva. Eggs are laid and mite feed and develop on the maturing bee larva. By the time the adult bee emerges from the cell, several of the mites will have reached adulthood, mated, and are ready to begin searching for other bees or larvae to parasitize. There is a preference for drone brood. Inspection of the drone brood in their capped cells will often indicate whether or not a colony is infested. The dark mites are easily seen on the white pupae when the comb is broken or the pupae are pulled from their cells.
Mites spread from colony to colony by drifting workers and drones within an apiary. Honey bees can also acquire these mites when robbing smaller colonies. It is best to isolate captured swarms, package bees, and other new colonies from other colonies and examine them for mites before placing them in an apiary.
Climate change is bringing vicious droughts to America, Australia and elsewhere around the globe. Drought has brought the mighty Mississippi River – a $180 billion super transportation 8-lane highway down to a one-lane dirt trail. At immediate risk are 8,000 jobs, $54 million in wages and benefits and 7.2 million tons of commodities worth $2.8 billion.
Drought has thrown the state of Victoria, Australia, into an epic honey crisis. It’s the middle of summer, a peak time for honey production, and there’s NO honey in hives. Instead, beekeepers are having to hand-feed bees to keep them alive. Intense and unimaginable drought has discombobulated plants. No flowers, no honey. It’s easily the worst honey season in a half century.
Climate change is not just about drought. Record missing Arctic sea ice from the summer of 2012 disrupted the polar jet stream bringing it farther south than normal causing biblical flooding to the UK this past summer (2012). UK plants didn’t flower, bees stayed in their hives, shivered and starved to death. The UK’s honey production was down 72 percent from 2011. Flooding decimated home grown UK vegetables and fruit treesdidn’t bare fruits.
Climate disruption is just beginning to bite into global food security. We have a very narrow window as a species to take corrective action. A ratified worldwide carbon tax is requisite by 2016 to reduce by 5 percent each year (until 2036) more than 85 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted daily. President Obama understands thealacrity of climate change and will provide global leadership to address this – the most pressing issue in the history of our species.