Almost everyone has heard about the current crisis with our honeybees, so let’s take a look at what’s going on. Much like you and I and every animal you know of, bees have an average life span. In the summer, once they reach adulthood, their lifespan is only about 4 to 6 weeks because they work harder and wear out; they have more close encounters with lethal enemies, like birds and mantids; and old age. But in the winter it’s closer to 2 to 4 months because they spend their time inside the hive where it’s safe and warm with no enemies.
That equation has changed recently. Here’s the gist of what’s going on.
Researchers all over the world have been looking at why that life span has recently become fundamentally shorter — by half or more. To begin with, they studied what they thought were the obvious problems. Looming large were agricultural pesticides encountered in the big world of food collection by all pollinators. But as persistent and as widespread as ag chemicals are, they aren’t everywhere. There are also those pesky mites chewing on both adult and baby bees, but they’ve been around for decades. So why now?
Fortunately, other researchers weren’t convinced it was this easy. They kept looking, and what they found has come down to what we call the “four Ps.”
Pesticides are part of the problem, for some bees and in a lot of places. Then there are those pesky predatory mites that are now, they’ve discovered, spreading viruses bees had never seen. Add in a new parasitic disease called Nosema apis, with neither symptoms nor a cure, and finally, the one that surprised almost everybody, there simply wasn’t enough good food readily available for every bee in the bunch. Pesticides, predators, parasites, and pasture. It’s that simple; and that complicated. Let’s look at these a bit closer.
The pesticide thing got messy fast for a couple of reasons. There are controversial new chemicals being used affecting not only bees, but also most other nontarget insects — soil dwellers, water dwellers, and plant dwellers. They are immediately lethal to those target pests when applied to crops early in the season, but they last the whole time the plant is alive. They seep into all the plant’s parts: roots, stems, leaves, flowers, pollen, and nectar. They wash away from the fields and swim with the fish, and they last for years everywhere they go. But in this afterlife they aren’t so strong as to be critically lethal. Sublethal is the term they use. These chemicals challenge immune systems, break down digestive systems, and slowly take their toll. Through consistent use over the past several decades, the residual effects continue in many corn, soybean, and cotton fields.
Another pesticide issue was not new, really, but has been looked at from a different perspective. Fungicides have forever been classified as “not a problem” for pollinators or the environment. But the effects of these newly crafted fungicides, applied directly to blooming plants, affect bee growth and colony health. Baby bees grow slowly and die young. Queens fed these chemicals go missing. Drones don’t mate.
Beekeepers apply these pesticides in their hives with the hopes of putting a stop to predatory mites, but what it essentially comes down to is poison in a beehive. Who would have thought that would ever happen? These “miticides” do kill mites while sparing the bees, but they damage queens and drones, and are absorbed by the wax inside. Soon, a beehive can be inadvertently soaked in sublethal chemicals, while the beekeeper had only the best intentions. Controlling mites with nontoxic, organic acids has been shown to be effective while leaving out the other ill effects.
Viruses have always been around, and with bees it’s no different. But until the mites and the pesticides came along, viruses hadn’t been much of an issue. When combined, pesticides provide a path for viruses to challenge a honeybee’s immune system, making their bodies less resistant. They go from bee to bee when they are feeding babies, queens, drones, and each other. Worst case scenario, every bee in a hive has some level of viral infection. After a time there, the bees learn to fly away to healthier homes, or they begin to die younger, and the colony collapses. No mites means no virus.
Then there is Nosema apis, an internal parasite. It is ingested by adult bees as a spore, makes itself at home, and grows to produce more spores while continuing to spread. When combined with viruses and pesticides inside our bees, it’s even worse, eating a bee from the inside out. The only symptom is that the bee quits eating and dies. The good news is that with probiotics, essential oils, efforts to reduce mites, and enough good food, bees are much more resistant to the parasite.
Which brings us to pasture. Among the acres of crops treated with herbicides, asphalt parking lots, and weed-free lawns, pollinator food does not grow here. A beehive needs acres of all types of flowers, plants, even weeds, to live. Enough blooming acres all season long will provide enough good food all of the time for every bee in the bunch. But they cannot be treated with pesticides or herbicides. Save a bee, plant a flower.
All these things are going on nearly everywhere, interacting, multiplying, adding up, and piling on, and bees may see better days ahead because of the awareness.
Russian honeybees may help in the fight against varroa mite in America’s hives.
Kim has been Associate Publisher and Senior Editor of Bee Culture magazine for 30 years, and has been keeping bees for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on beekeeping, including The Backyard Beekeeper and Better Beekeeping. He lives in northeastern Ohio with his wife, chickens, bees, cats, and several gardens.