By Julie Plunkett Medical Herbalist, Clinical Nutritionist
In February 2007, U.S. Beekeepers in 22 states, including Hawaii, reported unusually high rates of bee colony losses with no explanation … unusual losses were also being reported by European beekeepers.
Up to this point in time Colony Collapse Disorder has resulted in a loss of 50% to 90% of colonies in beekeeping operations across the United States. In Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) honeybee colonies inexplicably lose all of their workers. Currently CCD is a mystery – all we know is that the main symptom is simply a low number of adult bees in the hives – no outward signs of disease, pests or parasites exit (though there are typically disease organisms present in the hives). That said, apparently 55% CCD hives are infected with three or more viruses, as compared to 28% of non-CCD hives.
Often there is still food in the hive, and immature bees are present. The cause of the loss of bees seems to be the sudden early death, in the field, of large numbers of adult workers.
It is interesting to note that large bee population losses have occurred throughout history … there are records of serious losses dating back as far as 950 A.D. and up to 1995 … some called it a “… great mortality of bees” and “… the disappearing disease”. Many of these cases could be associated with extremely cold winters, as is suggested in those case reports by the beekeepers themselves. There is also an occurrence called “spring dwindling” where large numbers of colonies die in spring; however in 2007 some beekeepers lost 80 – 100% of their bees.
Scientists have and are researching all contributing factors including every pathogen, virus and infectious agent possible – but many have been eliminated as contributors. That said, a new pathogen has been discovered that may be implicated in CCD – a protozoa called Nosema cerana; it apparently came from China, then went to Europe, and now is present in the U.S.
That said, no single factor has been consistently found in colonies suffering from CCD. Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) is considered by researchers to be highly correlated to CCD, while there is still no proof of a causal relationship between any infectious agent and CCD. Viral infections in bees often occur without any outward sign or symptom … however under conditions of stress (caused by inclement weather, poor nutrition or parasitism) viral infections increase, then viral symptoms present in the bees.
Interestingly, regarding the effects of stress on bees, evidence suggests that CCD is more common in businesses in which bees are trucked long distances and rented for pollination. Mite infestation in the hive is an ongoing major problem regarding bee health. Mites have become resistant to the pesticides that are often used by commercial beekeepers, therefore new pesticides have to be created which become more and more toxic … this is yet another reality that may or may not play a role in CCD.
A factor contributing to the decline of feral (wild) colonies is the loss of native plant habitats to shopping malls, business corridors, parking lots and housing developments. Ideally, honeybees need a big cavity (usually in the middle of a big tree) that contains about 40 liters or 10 gallons in volume, to make their home in the wild. These kinds of cavities are usually found in the middle of big trees, but with deforestation, there are not nearly as many suitable trees left standing as there used to be.
Agriculture and grazing practices have had a negative effect on wild bee populations, and not just of honeybees but also of native, solitary, semi-social bees, and bumblebees. Native vegetation and prairies filled with flowering plants have been replaced with pasture grasses for cattle ranching and vast plantings of single-species crops. Pesticides used in conventional agriculture as well as genetically modified plants may be playing a role in CCD. Some researchers in Europe postulate particular types of pesticides, classified as neonicotinoids, are responsible for mass bee deaths. They say that mass bee losses coincided with the introduction of this class of chemical in at least 13 countries. These pesticides have since been banned in France and Germany may be the next to ban them. Genetic modification of plants (GMOs) renders the pollen of that plant changed as well, and there is a theory that when bees consume sterile or genetically altered pollen the bees starve or are themselves harmed. The research continues on the affects of GMOs and pesticides in CCD.
Many ‘organic’ beekeepers (no synthetic chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, etc. are used in any part of their operation; no corn syrup is fed to bees, open mating is done, yards are pesticide free, etc.) report that they are not experiencing any losses of bees at all. These reports are anecdotal, while promising and very inspiring indeed.
No single factor has been consistently found in colonies suffering from CCD. Colony Collapse Disorder might be due to a combination of known factors, or the result of something no one has yet considered… that said, researchers are stating that … clearly CCD is a multi-factorial syndrome.
This article was last updated on May 1, 2010
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