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What We Now Know – and Don’t Know — About Honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder

In honor of September being National Honey Month, National Geographic Voices publishes an extract from a new book, Bees on the Roof (Tumblehome Learning, September 1, 2016). “Bees are fascinating,” says the author and former business journalist Robbie Shell. “I have always been a little wary of them, but I became intrigued after visiting my brother’s backyard beehives and seeing their amazing teamwork and productivity. Then I learned that bees are actually in danger of being wiped out. They had a story that needed to be told.”  

Click on the book image for more information
Click on the book image for more information

The result is Bees on the Roof, “environmental fiction, geared towards middle-grade boys and girls who want an entertaining story while also learning about science.” Bees on the Roof includes an exploration of honeybees, pollination, and recent threats to our ecosystem.

Here is an excerpt, on Colony Collapse Disorder:

By Robbie Shell

  1. First, a definition: Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony (hive) disappear, leaving behind a queen, food, nurse bees and baby bees. Without the mature worker bees to bring nectar and pollen back to the hive, it collapses (dies). CCD was first identified in 2006. Ever since, it has been a huge concern for the agricultural industry — which relies on bees to pollinate crops — and for commercial beekeepers, who earn most of their money renting out their bees to big farms around the country.

For example, California’s almond crop – estimated at somewhere around 800,000 acres – relies almost exclusively on billions of bees trucked in to pollinate almost 400 miles of almond groves stretched across the state’s Central Valley.

  1. Keep in mind that CCD does not have just one cause: Many factors contribute to its presence, but two major culprits seem to be: overuse of pesticides (see next paragraph), and attacks from parasites (especially the deadly varroa mites) and pests (such as small hive beetles and wax moths).
  2. The debate over what causes CCD frequently turns on the question of pesticides, or more specifically, insecticides, a type of pesticide designed to kill insects. Scientists are paying increasing attention to a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids (neonics, for short). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking into whether and how they disrupt bees’ nervous systems. Neonics are manufactured by chemical companies and sold to farmers who use them to eradicate pests on cotton, citrus plants, wheat and corn, among other crops. Chemical companies say the risk from neonics is overstated, and that they are necessary to protect our food supply.

What many scientists, environmentalists, and organic beekeepers do agree on is that all the different insecticides and herbicides used on farms and in fields — as well as those sprayed in hives to fend off mites, fungi and other intruders — create what has been called a “toxic soup” of chemicals. Chronic exposure to these chemicals, say opponents of pesticide use, can make it difficult for bee colonies to breed and resist disease.

  1. Colony Collapse Disorder remains the subject of continually evolving new theories. Some scientists now suggest that climate change could throw off pollination schedules because warmer weather affects where plants grow and when they bloom. Bees may not be primed to meet the needs of these new schedules. Recent decisions by big agricultural producers to use all available soil for growing crops, thereby removing acres of land once filled with wildflowers and other sources of nutrition for bees, are cited as another potential contributor to CCD.

Then there are the spooky “ZomBees,” a term used to describe bees infected by parasitic “zombie flies.” Eggs laid by zombie flies in a bee’s abdomen hatch into larvae that eat away at the bee’s brain and wings. Disoriented by these attacks, the bees begin to behave in uncharacteristic ways. They leave their hives at night (which healthy bees rarely do), dance (not the helpful waggle kind), and then fall to the ground, crawling around blindly in circles until they die.

  1. Some interesting, and discouraging, numbers: The U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) latest figures on honeybee mortality rates estimate that between April 2014 and April 2015, 42% of U.S. honeybee colonies died. This compares to 34% the preceding year. For the first time last year (2015), the number of honeybee deaths during the summer was greater than in the winter — not a good sign given that hives are expected to be stronger and healthier in warm weather, and more stressed in the cold months.

The total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the USDA.

What’s clear is that everyone – no matter what they choose to blame CCD on – needs to work together to save the bees. As Sam’s father says in Bees on the Roof: “We’ve managed to create a society that’s in danger of killing them off. Bees have been around for what, millions of years? And here our highly sophisticated, technologically advanced, space age civilization seems to be doing nothing as they’re all destroyed.”

Comments

  1. Brian fredericksen
    United States
    October 24, 3:58 am

    As a full time beekeeper I’m sorry but this blog post does not accurately represent what is going on with honeybees in the USA. Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD has not been reported in statistically important numbers since 2009. The most important health issues surrounding honeybees has and will continue to be the parasitic varroa mite which jumped host from the Asian Honeybee to European Honeybee in the 1980’s and affects honeybees on all continents except Austrailia. The decrease in honeybees noted in the article was because of a loss of habitat and the varroa mite and the number of honeybee colonies kept by commercial beekeepers has stayed relatively stable for the last 30 years.