Ecocentric

Beepocalypse Redux: Honeybees Are Still Dying — and We Still Don’t Know Why

More than five years after it was first reported, colony-collapse disorder is still killing honeybees around the world. If scientists can't pinpoint the cause, the economic and environmental damage could be immense

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Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Colony-collapse disorder is wiping out honeybee colonies

The honeybees are dying — and we don’t really know why. That’s the conclusion of a massive Department of Agriculture (USDA) report that came out late last week on colony-collapse disorder (CCD), the catchall term for the large-scale deaths of honeybee groups throughout the U.S. And given how important honeybees are to the food that we eat — bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year — the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying.

CCD was first reported in 2006, when commercial beekeepers began noticing that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee the hive, ending up dead somewhere else and leading to the rapid loss of the colony. On normal years, commercial beekeepers might expect to lose 10% to 15% of their colony, but over the past five years, mortality rates for commercial operations in the U.S. have ranged from 28% to 33%. Since 2006 an estimated 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost, costing beekeepers some $2 billion. There are now 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the U.S., down from 6 million 60 years ago. And if CCD continues, the consequences for the agricultural economy — and even for our ability to feed ourselves — could be dire. “Currently, the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops,” the USDA report said.

So what’s causing CCD — and how can we stop it?

(MORE: What’s the Buzz: Study Links Pesticide With Honeybee Collapse)

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a single smoking gun behind CCD. The USDA report points at a range of possible causes, including:

  • A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor that has often been found in decimated colonies
  • Several viruses
  • A bacterial disease called European foulbrood that is increasingly being detected in U.S. bee colonies
  • The use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, a neuroactive chemical

Since CCD isn’t so much a single disease as it is a collection of symptoms, chances are that some or all of these factors, working in concert, might be behind the disappearance of the honeybees. The presence of the Varroa mite, for instance, can worsen the impact of existing viruses, while the stress of shipping bees back and forth across the country — increasingly common in commercial beekeeping — may be amplifying the stress on the insects and leaving them more vulnerable to CCD. (If you think a cross-country flight is rough on you, just imagine what it’s like for a honeybee hive.) The fact that CCD is increasingly seen in other countries as well gives more weight to the notion that there may be multiple factors at work.

Still, environmentalists have focused most on the potential role of pesticides — especially the powerful neonicotinoids — and some lab studies have found that the chemicals can adversely affect bee health. It’s not that the pesticides — which are aimed at other insects — are killing the bees outright, but rather that sublethal exposure in nectar and pollen may be interfering with the honeybees’ internal radar, preventing them from gathering pollen and returning safely to the hive.

(MORE: Wildlife: Where Have All the Bumblebees Gone?)

The USDA report mostly withholds judgment on neonicotinoids, citing the need for more research, and the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a very slow review of the evidence. Last week, though, the E.U., which is also grappling with CCD, decided it was done waiting, and announced a two-year ban on neonicotinoids. The European Commission enacted the ban on the recommendation of the European Food Safety Authority, which said in January that the pesticides should be restricted until scientists had cleared the chemicals of a role in CCD.

The chemical industry, unsurprisingly, disputes the finding. Bayer CropScience, a major pesticide manufactuer, said in a statement after the ban was announced:

As a science-based company, Bayer CropScience is disappointed that clear scientific evidence has taken a backseat in the decisionmaking process. This disproportionate decision is a missed opportunity to reach a solution that takes into consideration all of the existing product-stewardship measures and broad stakeholder concerns. The further reduction of effective crop-protection products will put at risk farmers’ ability to tackle important pests that can severely restrict their ability to grow high-quality food.

As Brad Plumer pointed out over at the Washington Post, it’s not that the E.U. necessarily has more evidence about the role that the chemicals might be playing in CCD. This is a classic case of policymaking by the precautionary principle. The pesticides are considered guilty until proven innocent, and so they’re preventively banned, even before the scientific case is rock solid. That’s not unusual for European environmental regulation, especially in regard to chemicals. In the U.S. it’s the reverse — before the federal government is likely to take the step of banning a class of pesticides, and pissing off the multibillion-dollar chemical industry, you’re likely to see a lot more science done.

So what we may get in Europe and the U.S. is a de facto field test of the real impact of neonicotinoids on CCD. In two years, if American bees are still dying and their European cousins are thriving, we might just have our answers. And if not, well, I hope you don’t like cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, watermelons, cucumber, fennel, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds or any of the other dozens of food crops pollinated by our hardworking, six-legged, unpaid farmworkers.

MORE: The Riddle of the Bee Deaths: Solved at Last?

230 comments
Jax25
Jax25

I'm currently doing my master's degree project on colony collapse disorder and I'd just like to point out that this article is flawed in a basic way. Colony collapse DISORDER is a very specific malady. Its symptoms are a hive/colony with a living queen, capped brood and plenty of food stores but no - or very few - adult workers. The worker bees are mysteriously gone.  There are no dead bees to be found near the hive.  Also, hive pests are absent and robbing of the hive by other bees is delayed.  That is CCD.  What is happening more often - in both the US and around the world - is an increased incidence of bee mortality, often shown in winter colony losses.  Those are the things that are going to be influenced by pathogens and things like Varroa mite.  It's true that nobody knows, still, what causes CCD...but CCD (real CCD) isn't as prevalent as this article makes it out to be either. It's lumping CCD in with all other sources of colony failure.

no1tiniert
no1tiniert

and some thing else.bees love global warming,problem petro chemicals with heat is deadly combanation

no1tiniert
no1tiniert

first off get real,farmers are the blame , here's why, (greed) ,killed the huge amount of healthy diversity natural environmental flowering  plants, that are healthier,pesticides below the ground and above ground,in which also killed the natural flowering plants,land grab for more acreage,that seasonal  crops barely has there type of nutritional nectar.,in which total stressed them out, God save us all, Good luck

RobertLawton
RobertLawton

OK I just read your CCD topic above .. if I am correct and the bees are reacting to a earth changing event the answer to CCD Is simple .. change the queen often . confuse her controlling the stabilization of the hive ,

let me explain . see in my wild hive . the queen knew something was wrong and she made changes .

so the answer to CCD is simple ..find a wild hive that is stable then use it to create new queens often ...

your breeding the CCD traits ,the honey bees react to the nature they live in ,. thus effecting  the pollinator's ,monkey see monkey do effects...

so don't worry about the pollinators . focus on the change out rate of the queens by replacing the hive queen often with wild hive queens ..our national parks may save the future of the honey bee and maybe our own futures ..at this point profit is a dirty word ..at this point the queens are trying to revert to  nature ...they don't like the city live I guess ...so wild queens are placed in hives and old queens released ...if I am correct the old queens will help build new wild hives and the new wild queens will redirect and stabilize the future of the honey bee ...

RobertLawton
RobertLawton

pesticides...lol  growth hormones effecting the queens ,, I think not .. they could add some small effects but not what is taking place ..

see your hives have to many common factors ,

1. they are out in the open

2. made to a basic standard for profit...

3 . located near man made and man controlled crops ...

4. 95% of the time they are down wind from the man made crops ...

the bees don't feel safe in the hives you have made for them ask your self why ...?

did the hives change no . then the environment around the hives did . we may not be able to see the changes like the bees can . we don't even know what they are seeing yet  or what they are syncing yet ..

but one thing is clear something has effected these bees to the point they are leaving the hives

about 20,000 honey bees vanished 5 months ago from my wild hive . I watch this hive like a hawk . they did not just dye off ...I saw a strong winter kill off but latter then normal . like it was timed by the queen , she knew what she was doing . the hive would normally be reborn in the spring time . it set with no bees till today and then all at once they started hatching ..

this is tells me one thing I am sure of , we have no idea what is causing these events and the bees do know.. . and I can tell you right now its not pesticides or growth hormones ...

RobertLawton
RobertLawton

OK , ,, where are the dead bees ? are they  dying ...prove it !    show me the dead bees ...beyond the normal kill off ...

I think the hives are leaving what they think is not going to protect them from the cold weather or environmental changes they see coming ...open your eyes .. look , your hives are all made the same way ,,.....lol.. see a bee tree reacts to the weather and environmental changes ... that's why they are leaving the man made hives ...

RobertLawton
RobertLawton

my name is Robert Lawton I have been watching the same wild honey  bee hive for more then 10 years now . it was in the same place more then 35 years that I know of . it has change its patterns for the first time in its recorded  history , if you are a skilled bee keeper contact me directly on face book .. these bee hives are not dying off , they are changing their timing to the weather , today I watch a rebirth of the hive ,it normally takes place in the spring in a few selected waves . the young are born and bring new life to the hive . this is the first time I have ever seen this hive reborn in the early fall . hundreds of young bees hatching in the fall ,at first it thought it was a freak event . now I don't think so .. its a timed event to a very bad weather and a bad winter is coming and they Knew it .if I am correct the Queen has protected her hive an change the rebirth timing of the hive ,the stores of honey set waiting for he rebirth of he hive till now ,they are swarming in the fall as young bees , think about what I am saying . the queen has cap the young unborn in thicker cells to hold them back and to change the timing of their hatching ,they know something we don't ...?what did the Queen see coming ? that's what is happening to he honey bees , they are not dying off .. they are changing their patterns ,they are sensing some future change in the earth's environment or weather coming in the near future and they are reacting to a cause an effect system we don't see it coming  or know about Yet ...if I am correct the queen has change the hatching by 4 1/2 -5 months  so what ever is  coming is 4 1/2 - 5 months into the future from right now ....!  it  is starting to make clear logic ,, those bee hives that failed out west failed because the hives could not correct their timing because of the on going weather patterns....same with the hives in the south , the hives are not , the bees are reacting the way they would if a bad winter was  coming  ....or a bad climate change ....something has triggered  their wild instincts and they are reacting .....are we going to be like  the dying hives or the reborn hive ????????????????????????????? you have 4 1/2 - 5 months to make the right choice ..?  Now we know when ...! is this what the Aztec codex really means . it shows a bee hive where Atlantis once was .....now it makes since ,they were reading the codex wrong the sign for words is over the bee hive , the bees are warning them. it makes since now , one of the most socially environmental linked species is reacting first , my question to you is simple , where are the bees dying off ?

ChuckMartin
ChuckMartin

So, scientists can't do anything because there is no one single smoking gun?  Lame.

BerritAlfons
BerritAlfons

#honeybee #CCD would end if pollinators refused to service crops with pesticides that are not bee friendly.

wondering
wondering

Monsanto is working on an artificial pollinator so that after they've killed off all the bees, farmers will be forced to buy them to grow our crops. Don't believe me? Then why else would they sell their toxic GMOs, pesticides and herbicides? Only insane or satanically evil people would do that without a profit motive.

JanetNoll
JanetNoll

God help those behind GMO's, those who sold the seed, the politicians, the scientist and lobbyist. God help all of us if they are wrong. GMO seed you see is made to conquer the world. It's seeds have spread far and wide beyond the place their planted. GMO seeds are like a plague. IF we find out they are poisonous to future generations to wildlife, to bees, to birds, to other forms of plant life to humans, it will be too late. It may already be too late. Who are they to put the Earth at risk and to do it without out the populations permission or approval. We think we are living in a democracy but we can't protect our kids from bad food because the govt. won't label GMO's! Something is terribly wrong.

Elodie@lavieengreen.com
Elodie@lavieengreen.com

Great article. The fact that 1 of 3 bites of food (healthy ones!) worldwide is created via insect pollination is a tale telling sign of how precious bees are to human lives... I recently researched the subject and wrote a post covering a few points not included here, if anyone is interested (http://www.lavieengreen.com/blog/honey-bees-colony-collapse-disorder-threatens-global-agriculture). The gravity of the situation calls for a minimum of precautionary principle actions and yet, we're far from there. How sad... and scary.

Donothitsend
Donothitsend

When did the honeybees come to America?

Yes, This is a test!

DougDeNunzio
DougDeNunzio

the idea behind this is to go forward somewhere with honeybee population in the USA

RobertDavison
RobertDavison

@Hadrewski, you seem to be doing a good job of going through this post and trying your best to support the use of GMO's and asking others for empirical  data to back up their claims.. I ask where is yours and who do you work for? As for your claims that there would be wide spread famine without these products I call B.S on that one with proper urban planning and moving cities off what was once prime farming land and rebuilding them on what has always been marginal farming land there would be no shortage. The fact is no matter where we live on this planet this is a common theme due to people feeling the need to live as close to coastal areas as possible, sad but true.

kris2013
kris2013

Why don't You stopped GMO in US??

kris2013
kris2013

And the possible reason is: GMO corn, soy, wheat.. etc.

vaso1771
vaso1771

There is no such thing as ccd the EPA knows it the USDA knows it the FDA knows it the universities who have done the research know it. The bees are being poisoned by neonicotinoid pesticides produced by Bayer and Syngenta and used by Monsanto as seed treatment mostly on corn and soy, banning these neurotoxins is the only solution. So its safe to say that ccd is actually Clothianidin collapse disorder.

TheWord
TheWord

The source of many, maybe most, of man's problems is overpopulation. To feed the billions we use more and more chemicals, we take up more land and destroy habitats, we pollute more because there are so many of us. We fight over land and resources, eventually over water rights. The list goes on and on. We need to get population growth under control or result will be catastrophic, in one form or another.

suemtchlrnw
suemtchlrnw

One greatly overlooked practice that is probably a big part of the stress problem is to leave the hives out in the open where they are easy to transfer on and off the trucks. Hives are already a hot places to inhabit and many bees only job is to fan the the place. Place stacked boxes in direct sunlight for the whole day in the hot summer and it becomes extremely hard to almost impossible to keep the temperature constant. The bees probably are suffering heat stresses and further exhaustion trying to keep the hives from over heating. In the natural state, they would never be so exposed directly to sun heating.

LindaS
LindaS

I don't understand the bee shortage.  We have so many bees on our property that it is overwhelming.  My Grandson and I are both allergic to stings.  I would love to have someone come out here and gather them all up and take them away.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

The GMO crybabies had better start giving us some hard data from sites that are not dedicated to a hippie organic organization.

berryls
berryls

grow clover.  there's no clover anywhere any more.  it used to be everywhere.

Marketing Wiz
Marketing Wiz

There's a great documentary available on Netflix about this topic.

Flavio Camargo de Mattos
Flavio Camargo de Mattos

Very well pointed out. The chemicals and the weather changing around the world. So it's too short time for insects for adapting into the system of the abrupt temperatures oscillation = variation. But the big winner in killing the honey bees, one can be sure, in that they're the chemicals.

Julie Rish
Julie Rish

GMOs and the chemicals used on plants these days. Funny how It's the MOST obvious thing and yet all these super smart scientists are confused. None of that stuff is good for anything in nature... not the earth, not the bees, not us humans.

Liz Kohler
Liz Kohler

Insecticides. European scientists proved it.

Donna Jonas
Donna Jonas

It could be a combination of so many factors assaulting their senses that their systems are shutting down. Between extreme weather, chemicals and GMO's, it is no wonder they cannot survive. Might be a good idea to start stocking up on food before we all have to ingest food produced by Monsanto.

Priscilla Lydia
Priscilla Lydia

These scientist are paid off to be clueless... Insecticides are killing the bees. It doesn't take a Doctorate to figure it out. Ban GMOS seeds now!

Jeffrey Guanzon
Jeffrey Guanzon

Too much insecticides and pesticides...chemicals all around...global famine is nxt..

James Dunn
James Dunn

They're just wading in the tides til everything collapses - allowing them to begin to mechanically engineer bees.

Daniel Renfro
Daniel Renfro

Monsanto is the cause. Gmo's will be the death of us all.

Gary R. Hess
Gary R. Hess

It's most likely a combination of many factors. Chemicals are most likely, but also extreme weather can't be good for them.

Keith Alan West
Keith Alan West

but global warming is a myth...this here just more evidence OUR PLANET is in trouble

JD Méndez
JD Méndez

Excuse me Time, scientists are very well aware is GMOs; is YOU who don't, nor your sources would admit as much. Ok? So don't get "confused."

DennisScottMoore
DennisScottMoore

A few 'Earth Days' ago ( 2009?) PBS aired a documentary hosted by David Attenborough called 'How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth'  ( You can find it on YouTube )  I've seen it a bunch of times.   With over 7 billion of us walking around at the SAME time, we've reached the limit of land...suitable....for growing the amount of food to sustain a population THIS large.   They routinely monitor land useage  via satellites from space.   The worldwide climate 'shifts' have already affected where we can grow food.   The LAST thing we need is to have to meet the challenge with a decreasing bee population.   Just one small piece of the problem.   Check out that documentary.  It's pretty ALARMING.

Barry Steel
Barry Steel

Who would have thought the be underpinned the food chain . Not monsanto tats or sure

rsmith
rsmith

Consider GMOs......