Why are the bee colonies collapsing?

29th Nov 2013

Sarah Marshall

When we think of the honeybee, various things may come to mind; perhaps the sweet syrup we add to our tea upon falling ill, or being painfully stung as a child, yet we may forget their most important purpose – pollination.

A third of the food we consume is directly or indirectly pollinated by these insects, many of who have become domesticated for industrialised honey production over the years. That is why an ever-worsening phenomenon that has farmers and beekeepers worried is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a major loss in the percentage of a beekeeper’s hives, first reported as such in the eastern US in 2006.

CCD is marked by the rapid loss of adult worker bees, as well as an obvious absence of dead worker bees both within and surrounding affected hives, and a delay in the invasion of hive pests. There are many emerging theories about what the loss is attributable to, including the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, the varroa mite, genetically modified crops, habitat loss, malnutrition, and even cell phones.

The primary assumed culprit for CCD is the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that are chemically similar to nicotine. According to Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, “They’re what are known as systemic pesticides: seeds are treated with the chemicals, which then are taken up by the vascular systems of the growing plants.” This makes the plant itself toxic to pests, and persistent in soils. Accumulation of the toxin over time can lead to pollinators being exposed to lethal or sub-lethal doses.

According to an article published in the Bulletin of Insectology, bees exposed to high concentrations of imidacloprid, the most commonly used neonicotinoid, may experience a reduction in foraging activity. Some research suggests that exposure to these chemicals inhibits bees’ ability to find their hives after pollination.

The evidence for neonicotinoids being linked to CCD has mounted so high that the European Commission has decided to ban the usage of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for two years, effective December 1, 2013.

The next most likely culprit for CCD is the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that can only reproduce in a honeybee colony and weakens bees by attaching to them and sucking hemolymph fluid from their circulatory systems. At first, these mites only affected south-eastern Asian bees but then expanded their host range to the European honeybee, and eventually all by the mid 1900s. These mites have had the most significant adverse economic impact on the beekeeping industry but can often be controlled by chemical treatments until they adapt and new treatments are necessary.

Malnourishment also factors into CCD. In order to harvest more honey, some commercial beekeepers feed their bees high fructose corn syrup and/or soy protein instead of honey, which is less nutrient dense than honey and can lead to malnourishment. Immune-compromised bees are much more susceptible to pathogens, viruses, and fungal attacks. Corn and soy are the two major genetically modified crops of the world, due to the success of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready seeds. These crops have the ability to emit their own pesticide and have shown potential long-term effects on bee health.

Cell phone usage was a very early explanation for CCD, claiming that radiation emissions could disorient the bees, making it harder for them to find their hives. This theory has been widely rejected from the scientific community as more viable evidence has emerged and is being investigated.

The discussion about CCD has been heating up as hive loss percentages increase. Farmer and beekeepers cannot afford to lose their honeybees. Based on the accumulation of research thus far, CCD is likely due to a combination of factors rather than a single one. Neonicotinoids and GM crops affect the bees’ nutrition, making them more susceptible to the varroa mite and other parasites or viruses.  As industrialised farming methods continue to work against nature, by reducing diversity and creating monocultures, the remedies will need to evolve faster than the problems, or we might one day have a new job sector dedicated to human pollination of crops.

Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy



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