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Colony Collapse Disorder: From Bees to not so many Bees
There is almost nothing as baffling as a sudden and unexplained disappearance by an individual…unless it is such a disappearance by hundreds of individuals simultaneously. Colony Collapse Disorder is an example of such a phenomenon; although, the hundreds of individuals that instantaneously vanish in this scenario are not human beings…they are honey bees. There are a number of environmental theories which attempt to address the cause of this relatively recent occurrence. Yet, as this “disorder” continues to crop up more and more frequently, scientists and environmentalists are still without a definitive reason (and more importantly a solution) for Colony Collapse Disorder.
Colony Collapse Disorder (hereinafter referred to as CCD) is the unexplained and sudden disappearance of a bee hive’s worker bees. This baffling phenomenon has been a recurring yet infrequent issue in beekeeping since its inception. Literature from the 1880s, 1920s, and 1960s, report episodes of what was then coined “disappearing disease.” However, a drastic rise in the number of these incidents within Western honey bee colonies in North America in 2006 generated renewed interest, and newfound urgency, into resolving the CCD issue.
In addition to the recent alarming increase in these mystifying disappearances domestically, European beekeepers have observed similar increases in episodes of the phenomena across the Atlantic. Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal have all seen marked increases in episodes of CCD. Additionally, Switzerland and Germany, two countries that had been traditionally devoid of any occurrences, have begun reporting initial incidents. Intriguingly, one country has been witness to a counter-trend: Northern Ireland has reported a 50% decrease in CCD as the rest of Western culture endures a burgeoning of incidents. The reason behind the anomaly in Northern Ireland is a mystery as well. With the vast majority of the countries enduring a rise in CCD being important agricultural providers, this alarming increase could be a harbinger of significant problems on the horizon.
Beyond the obvious potential reduction in the world’s supply of honey; other more significant damage could be inflicted on the planet’s food stores due to CCD. With a considerable portion of the world’s agricultural crop relying on bees for pollination, the global food supply and, by extension, economy could sustain irreparable damage. Traditionally, when there is a dearth of naturally-bred bees that are needed to conduct pollination for mammoth commercial farming operations, beekeepers are hired to provide the workforce required to fill the role. Accordingly, nearly 15 billion in commercial crops are pollinated by commercial honeybees annually. Yet, if the current rate of attrition continues, there will not be enough functional bee colonies--wild or managed. Moreover, the entire planetary ecological system could be devastated due to the major role that the missing bees would have played in the reproductive process of plant communities in the wild.
On a more immediate level for the beekeeper, aside from the far-reaching global effects, his or her personal livelihood is being crippled by CCD. Between September 2007 and March 2008, losses in the United States alone were estimated at 36% of managed hives. While the trade of apiculture (beekeeping) has traditionally been profitable, it has also been rife with inherent difficulties. Maintaining the health and activity of a colony has always been problematic due to issues in maintaining the proper nutrition of the bees along with potential illnesses that could obliterate the hive. However, this new threat to the longevity of an established colony portends the extinction of the beekeeping industry. As this unsettling scenario continues to unfold, the initial issue to address is: what is causing CCD?
Each day, bees by the billions depart their hive for an industrious day of gathering nectar and, by extension, spreading pollen. Unfortunately, a large number of these valuable laborers are never returning. Over time, these daily disappearances have led to losses of 30 - 90% in the workforce of affected commercial hives (normal attrition rates for these hives is around 20%). In the previously-mentioned incidents of bee losses from the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, the disappearances were blamed on “exceptionally hard winters” followed by a “cold spring.” Yet CCD, due to the protracted length of its outbreak accompanied by the severity of its effects, is requiring earnest scientific research into an origin for the disorder.
Relatively soon after the CCD epidemic took hold in 2006, several scientists suggested that this bane to beekeepers was being caused by natural factors. Malnutrition and biotic factors such as Varroa mites along with inherent insect diseases caused by a variety of pathogens, including Nosema Apis and Israel Acute Paralysis Virus were tagged as potential causes. However, the experts who subscribed to this explanation for the alarming outbreak of CCD could not reconcile why these natural factors would suddenly have increased to a degree that could cause a pandemic. Since these nemeses to the healthy function of the colony have always been present in the environment, why have hives historically enjoyed long life and prosperity.
A contingent of this group also suggested that stress caused by a frequently changing environment due to constant hive relocation might be killing the bees (and in some cases, disorienting them to the point that they could not find the way back to the colony). But, this questionable theory was dismissed due to the fact that the bee species has been instinctively relocating their colonies since the dawn of time; and this nomadic tendency has never proven to be a problem previously.
Subsequently, a divergent school of thought began to develop. Instead of naturally-occurring elements in the environment causing increased incidents of CCD, proponents of this theory postulated that the genesis of the problem was man made. Pesticides, genetically-modified crops with pest control characteristics, even radiation from cell phones, have been blamed by these researchers for the rise in CCD. Yet, after extensive testing, no evidence has been discovered which directly links any of these causes to the increased disappearances of worker bees.
In 2010, the USDA released a report on CCD suggesting that the root of the problem is a combination of the naturally-occurring and man-made factors working in concert together. Most importantly, the location of the colony determines its chances for sustainability. The research cited revealed simply this: colonies which displayed higher levels of pathogens, pesticides, and parasites showed exponentially higher levels of CCD than those where these factors were not as prevalent. In short, this work “suggests that a combination of environmental stressors” will necessarily dictate a colony where worker bees are fatally weakened. Ostensibly, the human real estate axiom holds true for apiarists and wild bees in nature alike: location, location, location. While this location theory seems sound in its simplicity, other scientists do not believe that the problem is that obvious.
Millions of dollars are being poured into research to find the definitive cause for the CCD affliction. State agricultural agencies, various federal agencies, and universities both public and private are diligently conducting research in an attempt to solve this mystery. Additionally, the United States Agricultural Research Service has enacted tighter regulation of bee management practices in an attempt to reduce the introduction of damaging factors into bee populations. But, until the CCD riddle is solved, the overall economy will continue to bear another troublesome burden…and the individual in the grocery aisle will pay the price as well.