As a pest control service, we get a lot of questions about the issue of the honey bee to die off. It’s an issue that is often in the news, and lately, it’s even in advertising, like with Burt’s Bee’s campaign to “Bring Back the Bees” by planting wildflowers.
However, as much buzz as this issue gets, many people don’t understand the science behind the problem. That’s why we’re going to be publishing a series of blog posts about the root cause of bee die off. This week, we’re going to tackle the basics.
What is Colony Collapse Disorder?
According to the EPA, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome that is characterized by a majority of the worker bees in a colony disappearing and leaving behind a queen, food, and a few nurse bees to care for the immature bees and the queen.
This problem was first discovered in 2006 when beekeepers began to report unusually high losses – 30-90% of their hives. Half of the affected colonies displayed symptoms that were not associated with the known causes of honey bee death. For instance, very few dead bees were found near the colony, and the queen and young bees remained in the hive, along with honey reserves. However, without worker bees, a hive cannot sustain itself, and the entire colony eventually dies.
Why Is a Decline in Bee Populations Problematic?
Much of the food we eat is directly affected by honey bee activity. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) reports that about one of three mouthfuls in our diet benefits from honeybee pollination. This includes many specialty crops like tree nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. While honey bees are not native to the US, they are relied upon because they are more common and easier to manage for use in commercial pollination, as compared to native pollinators. Honey bee pollination results in $15 billion annually in increased crop value.
Since the 1940s, the total number of managed bee colonies has been cut in half. According to ARS, there are only 2.5 million colonies today, despite the increased need for commercial pollination. As a result, honey bees are being transported long distances, which is thought to be a stressor.
What Are the Possible Causes of Bee Die-Off?
CCD has caused major concern, but it is not the only cause of bee death. There are certain pesticides that are harmful to bees, and these particular substances come with warning labels and proper application instructions to prevent pesticide poisoning.
Pesticide poisoning occurs when a majority of the bees in a hive are killed by overexposure to a pesticide. This is called acute pesticide poisoning, and it is completely different from CCD, but the two are often incorrectly equated in media reports. Unlike with CCD, acute pesticide poisoning results in a pile of dead bees outside the hive entrance.
Bees also face a whole host of other threats and risks, including:
- Pathogens such as deformed wing virus and Nosema fungi
- Parasites such as Varroa mites
- Pests such as small hive beetles
- Nutrition problems due to a lack of pollen and nectar availability
- Stress due to commercial pollination techniques such as transport
These problems are especially damaging when they occur simultaneously.
What Causes CCD?
So far, researchers have not been able to prove a scientific cause for CCD. Many speculate that it could be a combination of some of the risk factors listed above, and it’s not necessarily caused by the same factors in each instance.
What Is Being Done?
The federal government has a CCD Steering Committee, which includes the EPA and the USDA, to develop a plan to tackle the issue. This plan includes a great deal of research and analysis, as well as preventative measures to try to prevent die off. The president’s office also put out a memorandum to create a strategy to promote pollinator health.
There is also independent research being done to determine the cause of CCD and other instances of pollinator death. A class of insecticides called were initially thought to be a major threat. However, new research seems to dispute that.