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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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?

222 comments
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 L Lavell
Priscilla L Lavell

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..

BryanSpeece
BryanSpeece

@RobertDavison Here's the research: Hendriksma HP, et al (2011) Testing pollen of single and stacked insect-resistant bt-maize on in vitro reared honey bee larvae. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28174. ... Also, was that whole moving cities suggestion a joke? Your solution is to move entire cities? How long do you think that would take? How do you plan to finance this? Who is going to want to farm this land while losing large portions of their crops because of pests and disease (that could have been prevented with GMOs)? ... I work for a home remodeling company and I do not own any shares in a GMO company.

BerritAlfons
BerritAlfons

@vaso1771 Just as good would be for all of the pollinators to band together and refuse to pollinate any crop that has (or is near) neonicotinoid pesticides.  The farmers would stop using them and Bayer and Monsanto would be in serious financial trouble.

suemtchlrnw
suemtchlrnw

@LindaS You have a healthy wild population. The hive are not messed with. I am sorry you two are in danger though.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

in reality we probably do have some very bad chemicals out there that nobody bothered to research properly.... these chemicals may be very deeply embedded in the food chain.


But to decry all chemicals as evil and spout organic farming for all is to invite mass famine so easily you can tell the organic crowd has no background knowledge at all.


When it comes to chemicals I can pull a chemical from a clover or flower and then go and synthesize the same damned chemical from COAL TAR... assuming both chemicals are pure there is not a damn bit of difference between these two chemicals and if you disagree on this point you have the chemistry knowledge of a 4th grader.

a chemical is a chemical with the chief concern being impurities should you be using certain sources.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Julie Rish 


Insecticides and fertilizers are the two pillars holding up the human food supply.... why there may be a bad chemical here or there that should have never been used the vast majority of these chemicals are safe and allow us to feed billions.


your "all natural organic" farming practices would lead to mass famine and that is what you nature nuts are oblivious too.... chemicals are everywhere on you, inside of you, and making the world work. (also a chemical coming from a plant does not mean it is safer than a chemical made from coal tar... that is just stupid education)

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Donna Jonas 

SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Priscilla L Lavell 

Pris you are guessing your ass off... unless you come up with hard data you might as well be a worthless corpse spouting nonsense.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Jeffrey Guanzon 



and if you take the chemicals away you cause famine too.... how about a more precise approach?

michaelwaynestewart
michaelwaynestewart

A simple example of trace impurities that have marked effects can be found in sugar. Though the sugar from beets and came is the same chemical the impurities are different and therefor many bakers can tell which of the two they used in their recipe. I propose that the more benigne the starting material is the better chance there is for

michaelwaynestewart
michaelwaynestewart

I disagree. Organic farming, when done right, can produce as much food per acre as "chemical" farming. That said many chemicals are harmless and to bunch them together is over simplifying things a bit much. I don't see the need to prove that a neuroactive chemical is killing things to put a temporary ban on it, and if the ban is for only two years then is innocents will be proven.

sjwilga
sjwilga

@Hadrewsky what do you eat, are you eating GMO food willingly. I think you will be the corpse, but  won't be spouting anything.

tmsimont
tmsimont

@@Hadrewsky "assuming there is no contamination..." right there is your problem.  

In what world do you ever see mass production of anything without contamination?  Do you think these chemicals are produced in an environment that is anything at all like the lab where they are researched?  

No.. they are produced in factories operated by mouth-breathers... Corners are cut, contaminations are underestimated, and mistakes are made as underpaid workers push themselves to meet impossible deadlines.  On paper, sure it's the same, and it's pure.. but there's no purity in practice.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@michaelwaynestewart 

But you bring up a fair side issue ---- Contamination

If I pull a drug from a rare African flower it is likely the contaminants will be less of a problem than if I were lazy about doing the same with my Coal Tar version of the drug.... making sure no contaminants are in a product is key.


assuming there is no contamination however, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DRUGS MADE FROM PLANTS OR COAL TAR

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@michaelwaynestewart 

You can synthesize and refine the purity of a chemical ever farther..... it may be more expensive but with enough processing those impurities will go.

The example is a chemical itself... a molecule I pull from a plant and another I create from coal tar are EXACTLY the same.... the origin of a chemical DOES NOT matter so long as we have no impurities.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@michaelwaynestewart 

btw I am respecting you because you seem to grasp the science behind such a hypothetical venture and you are not off spouting conspiracy theories like the rest of the loon here..... that makes you a rare commodity 

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@michaelwaynestewart 

I'd have to see your data but I wont insult your for no reason over your claim... my biggest challenge to you would be nitrates.

Nitrate fertilizers allowed the 20th century to boom in population, If you were to try and outgrow me without nitrate fertilizers I cannot see you being able to out produce me.