The case of the disappearing honeybees

'Honeybees are absolutely critical to the health of the environment.' - Kim Flottum


Courtesy Kim Flottum/Eastern Apicultural Society/

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Honey isn’t the whole story on bees.

Honeybees are responsible for about a third of the food we consume. Apples, sunflowers, cherries, melons, squash – you name it, they pollinate it. More than 4,000 natural pollinators, including butterflies and bumblebees, actually live in North America, but habitat loss and modern farming practices have left much of the workload to the busy bee herself, Apis mellifera.

In recent years, the honeybee population has been decimated by pests and diseases. Many beekeepers control these threats with attentive management. But now colony collapse disorder (CCD) has hit. Affected hives are found nearly empty, suddenly depleted of teeming colonies of perhaps 50,000 bees and holding only a few dead or dying occupants.

Examination of the bees remaining in CCD hives finds them devastated by illness and mites, as if their immune systems are impaired. Even typical predators such as wax moths avoid the newly abandoned hives for a week or more, according to a report by the Mid-Atlantic Apicultural Research and Extension Consortium.

CCD has been blamed on genetically modified plants, systemic pesticides, new diseases or pests, and even electromagnetic frequencies. Research continues but so far a cause has not been pinpointed. Migratory beekeepers, who crisscross the nation with colonies for hire, are experiencing the greatest losses.

Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine and chairman of the Eastern Apicultural Society, believes stress is a factor.

“There’s a natural cycle for bees where they build up in the spring, peak in the summer, taper off in the autumn and rest in the winter,” he says. “These days, migratory beekeepers push the bees to work through winter. This is going to put stress on a colony – after all, these are only bugs.”

Fewer honeybees may affect farmers and gardeners right away.

“If you are out there looking at your plants between 8 and 9 on a sunny morning and you don’t see a honeybee,” Flottum says, “then you can anticipate why you aren’t getting any fruit set on your cantaloupe.” He adds that it would help to have more hobby beekeepers. “I think every gardener should have a colony or two in the backyard.”

Other helpful steps to take:

  • Support local beekeepers by purchasing their products.
  • Invite beekeeping clubs to speak with gardening organizations, schools, ecology groups and others to increase awareness.
  • Contact a local beekeeper if you discover a swarm of honeybees near your home so they can come remove it. Hiving a swarm is a community service provided by beekeepers.
  • Avoid using pesticides. If you must, do not apply to plants in the blooming phase, even weeds.
  • Leave wild areas for native pollinators to nest. Pull up your plow at the ends of rows where ground is marginal. Some species nest in sandy soil, some in fallen wood and others in rough grasses, so even small areas of untended land can support a diverse population.
  • Remember to leave forage areas. Pollinators need plants in bloom throughout the growing season. Leave hedgerows between fields, let cover crops bloom and permit some natural growth in your yard.

For more information:

  • (click on “Pollinator Conservation”). The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation offers free fact sheets on creating habitat for pollinators. The organization also publishes Farming For Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms and The Pollinator Conservation Handbook.
  •, the online version of Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping. Provides 10 years of archived articles, links to local beekeeping associations, research updates and much more.
  • The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden by Kim Flottum – A comprehensive and reassuring manual for new beekeepers. To order, visit the Grit Bookshelf.