Colony Collapse Disorder and the Ever-Evolving Plight of the Honeybee

Honeybee populations continue to be affected by Colony Collapse Disorder and other largely unexplained losses, which scientists now believe to be the culmination of several causes.

| 2013 Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey

  • Trucks carry honeybees from field to field as part of a commercial pollination operation.
    Photo By iStockphoto/helovi
  • Both samples show larvae infected with European foulbrood; the yellow discoloration is a hallmark sign.
    Photo Courtesy Plos One
  • One of the classic symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder is the lack of sufficient worker bees to tend the existing brood, indicating sudden loss of adult bees. The above frames contain far too many brood cells for the remaining adult population.
    Photo Courtesy Plos One
  • A Varroa destructor mite feeds on a honeybee. Varroa mites are still considered to be one of the most virulent threats to honeybee health, spreading a range of infections.
    Photo Courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service

Summer months in the American countryside bring with them a number of reassuring sensations: sweltering heat offset by welcome storms; the clanking of bullfrogs in creeks and ponds; luminous songbirds flickering about in the treetops; and from field and hedgerow, coming and going with an earnest symmetry, the droning buzz of the industrious honeybee. From wild hives in hollow snags to the enormous amalgamated beehives veiled in netting and towed between orchards on the back of tractor-trailer rigs, the western honeybee (Apis mellifera), originally a native of Eurasia and northern Africa, is now as American as Honey Nut Cheerios. But this pretty little insect, long a critical component of the world’s agriculture, is today facing an existential threat that, if not addressed in the short-term, could result in catastrophic losses across the farming industry.

In late 2006, entomologists were alerted to a troubling phenomenon. Rural residents across the country were suddenly reporting emptied beehives. It was as if the hives’ workers were suddenly seized with an impulse to flee their sanctuary, leaving behind no trace or explanation for their absconding. The golden honey itself, raison d’être of the bees’ legendary industriousness, was often left behind, uneaten and unutilized in the comb. And on some occasions, even more precious components of their cooperative lifestyle were abandoned, including pupae and, incredibly, the unprotected queen herself, a heretical act of desertion unknown to occur among healthy bees. These symptoms stemming from a collection of causes soon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a symptomatic term that beekeepers define in multiple ways.

More importantly, something alarming was afoot, and as the vanishings spread like a shroud of silence over the continent’s farmland, agronomists became duly concerned. Without honeybee pollination, many of our most common crops would fail to fruit, leaving us without our melons and pumpkins, our peanuts and macadamias, our sunflowers, our onions, our avocadoes, apricots and almonds. Pollination by bees, or entomophily, had been taken for granted by humankind since the Neolithic Era more than 12,000 years ago. Now our dependable little allies were abandoning their posts, leaving growers with that uneasy feeling that comes before a storm.

What’s happening to our honeybees?

Investigators believe there are likely several factors at work behind the disappearance of our honeybees. According to the USDA-sponsored Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health released in May 2013, the parasitic mite Varroa destructor remains the most damaging pest infesting hives. Not only are these mites devastating to proper larvae development — female mites feed on adult bee hemoglyph (or “bee blood”) before climbing into pre-capped larval cells to reproduce — but their bites have also been linked to another honeybee threat: bacterial and viral infection. A bacterial disease known as European foulbrood is of particular concern. Transmitted both orally through food supply as well as through Varroa destructor bite wounds, European foulbrood is increasingly being found in larvae, which can ultimately lead to larval death in high concentrations. The Israeli acute paralysis virus, a known cause of bee death outside the hive, has also been linked to Varroa mite infestation.

But why are honeybees falling victim to these parasitic and pathogenic threats at a much higher rate than ever before? While there have been widespread instances of colony decline over the course of the last century (if not longer), the post-2006 decline is alarming. It has been estimated that the average loss of honeybee hives last winter alone reached almost 50 percent among U.S. beekeepers. It is unclear whether these deaths can accurately be attributed to “Colony Collapse Disorder” specifically, with many bees slowly perishing in the hive rather than failing to return, but this distinction is ultimately irrelevant in the face of significant and continued pollinator loss. Many researchers, like Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland, now believe the real culprit to be a combination of factors that systematically compromises bee immunity, likening the condition to the HIV virus in humans: “You don’t die of AIDS; you die of pneumonia or some other condition that hits when your immunity is down,” he said.

This reduced immunity has been on the academic research agenda for quite some time now, and again, many researchers point to a variety of potential sources. Malnutrition stemming from a scarcity of diverse foraging habitat is thought to play a significant part. It has been well established, for example, that colonies with access to the best pollens from a variety of healthy sources are much more resistant to disease than their poorly nourished counterparts. Such food sources, however, are in rather limited supply these days due to the widespread practice of monoculture agriculture, where bees repeatedly feed on the same commodity crop and then are shipped half way across the country to feast on the same. The common and prolific use of pesticides on these crops is also problematic, for samples from diseased hives exhibit a regular smorgasbord of different agricultural chemicals.

3/17/2015 1:40:11 AM

Well it just goes to show you that you put the devil in charge of your food it will eventually poison you. These poisons that is allowed and or forced on our crops is slowly killing our society. Now it's going into the hands of nature and killing the bumble bees, I'm pretty sure these FDA people don't know this cause if they did surely they wouldn't allow this atrocity to happen but without the honey bees there is no us.... as in the humane species. We have to work together not against each other...Mother Nature is going to get fed up one day with what we are doing to her planet and she's going to take it back in full force wipe the disease off this planet and start all over.

Beth Bowen
12/5/2013 5:24:22 PM

but how can we help?

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