The Disappearance of the Bees:
Colony Collapse Disorder
and its Effect on our Environment
Beginning in 2006, commercial beekeepers began to observe the disappearance of entire colonies of bees; hives were abandoned, with no clues left behind.
The phenomenon soon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
The cause of this disappearance was a mystery for many years, and even now seems more complex than initially imagined. Evidence points to many possible answers to why the bees have begun to abandon their nests, including poisoning by pesticide, stress and overwork, infection by multiple diseases due to a lowered immunity, and more recently, a parasite.
CCD is a threat to the world's bee population, and in turn, to our food supply.
Pollination is one of our nation's biggest, yet least known, industries. With competition from Asian honey suppliers, more and more American beekeepers are taking on pollination work to maintain their livelihood. Every pollination season, beekeepers load their hives into the back of Semi-trucks and set out for pollination grounds, where they have been contracted by farmers to fertilize crops.
In 2006, Beekeepers worldwide began to notice a surprising and troubling phenomenon; bees released for pollination were not returning to their hives. The result was a 30-90% loss in colonies for many beekeepers (ARS.USDA). Researchers estimate that this is about 1/3 of the colonies in the U.S. (NRDC). Dave Hackenburg, a beekeeper from Pennsylvania, was the first to officially report the mysterious loss of his bees. After releasing them in Florida pollinations grounds, Hackenburg returned a few months later to find that 400 of his bee colonies had disappeared, leaving the queen and her young behind. More curious still was the fact that there were no dead bees to be found (natgeo). Since 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has spread to 24 states, making it the most threatening and profound issue for beekeepers and farmers nationwide. In 2007, Congress recognized CCD as a serious threat, granting emergency funds to the Department of Agriculture to research the cause of the epidemic (rushprnews).
As yet, the Department has failed to provide answers.
On average, beekeepers and their bees travel about 60,000 miles per year. The long hours of driving, the constant change of scenery, overwork, and poor diet are all stressors to the bees, compromising their health by weakening their immune systems. Yet beekeepers need to compete with other suppliers, so they are willing to rent out their bees in every place they can to keep their income steady. That precious income is threatened now by the advent of CCD. In a study conducted by Scientific American in early 2007, researchers found that 30% of all colonies in the U.S. had disappeared. The next winter, they found that the number had jumped to 36% (SCIAM).
As honeybees feed, pollen collects on the tiny hairs covering their bodies. When the bee moves on to the next flower, that pollen is spread and the plant is fertilized so that it can reproduce. This makes them an extremely integral part of our ecosystem; without them many plants could not be fertilized or bear fruit.
Most people only associate bees with honey and flower production, never realizing their high agricultural value. A Cornell University study estimates that, altogether, honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of U.S. crops and seeds annually[ (NY Times).]Every day, people consume fruits, vegetables, and nuts without giving a thought to the bees that made it possible.
If CCD continues to spread, an important vegetable such as broccoli may become scarce, attainable only by people who are able to afford its high price. Without enough bees, it's possible the food supply would become nearly depleted and most of the world population would go hungry. European honeybees , used by beekeepers in most western countries, supply about 1/3 of the world's agricultural production.
These bees are used because they have the ability to descend upon crops in large numbers, and at any season of the year (SCIAM). Breeding and keeping these bees is the only way to keep up with the increasing population's demand for food. Other pollinators, such as wild bees and bats, would not be able to do the job.The insufficient number of wild bees is due in part to increasing worldwide urbanization. There simply aren't enough places for wild bees to feed and live. Many green, perfectly trimmed suburban lawns are wastelands to bees in search of food; devoid of dandelions and wildflowers, there is not a drop for bees to eat.
Bees are also a good measure of what is going on in the environment. If certain chemicals are harmful to the bees, odds are they are not much better for human consumption. "They mirror us," says Dr. Marla Spivak, a professor at the University of Manicotti and a renowned bee-expert. "We have a really close association with bees. They reflect what we're doing."(CBS)
Periodically, bees will return to their hives in order to groom themselves and store the pollen they have collected. If the plants they are collecting pollen from have been sprayed with a harmful pesticide, the hive will be put at risk and possibly die out from poisoning. Pesticides were just one early suspect in the CCD mystery. New pesticides, called "neonicotinoids," are derived from tobacco and have become popular among farmers for their ability to deter unwanted insects. One effect of this chemical is that it alters the memory of insects that feed on it, causing them to be disoriented, and in the case of bees, to forget the path back to their hive (CBS). It also claims to break down the immunity of insects and causes them to stop feeding.
Despite the fact that these symptoms seem to point to CCD, researchers have not detected elevated levels of this pesticide in hives affected by this disorder. Typically, if a hive is abandoned for some reason, bees from other colonies will move into the empty hive and pilfer the honey left behind.
Hives affected by CCD, however, remain abandoned; almost as if the other bees know there is something very wrong (CBS). This led to the suspicion that infection, by a parasite or some unknown pathogen, was the culprit responsible for the disappearance of so many honeybees.
Most of the bees in commercial hives are effectively treated as industrial machines and rented out to farmers like equipment. These bees already possess a compromised immunity due to stress, overwork, and a poor, pesticide-infused diet. They are therefore more likely to sicken and die than healthy bees in a natural environment. CCD-affected bees are typically found to have about 14 different viruses attacking their system at one time.
Scientists also found that the health of the captive bees was weakened further by numerous parasites(HONEYBEEQUIET). This alone would not completely explain the strange disappearance and lack of dead bees near the hive, however.
Several theories, including multiple infections, parasites, the bees deciding to leave on their own accord, and even cell phones, have been proposed as explanations of exactly what is causing this phenomenon. At the time of this writing, an article was published in Environment Microbiology Reports saying that researchers in Spain had pinpointed a certain kind of parasite as the cause for CCD. The parasite, called Nosema Ceranae, is believed to cause problems in the digestive system of bees and was present in every insect suffering from CCD tested by the researchers. When honeybee colonies were treated with an antiparasitic fungicide called fumagillin, CCD appeared to stop occurring (EUREKA).
Although this discovery seems promising, all the tests conducted by the researchers were done on bees found in Europe; the strain may be different from that affecting bees on this continent.
This solution, therefore, may not be applicable when it comes to North American bees. Since 1990, beekeepers in Canada have used antifungal treatments such as fumagillin to ward of parasitic infection by Nosema Cerranae and the varroa mite. These parasites have often been blamed for colony reduction in Canada, but have never before been identified as a cause of CCD(CBC).
Whatever the true cause behind CCD, it is apparent that steps must be taken to halt this disturbing trend. If the bee colonies are allowed to slowly die out, the world will be deprived of most of its current agricultural production. It should be clear to many that our beekeeping and farming methods are out of date. The bees have been enslaved to feed our increasing need for crops as the world's population continues to skyrocket.
Because of this increase in demand for all sorts of produce, it has become necessary to breed and overwork our bees to the point of exhaustion and illness. Without these kept bees, there would not be enough pollinators to meet our needs.
Because our planet has become so overdeveloped, the natural habitats for the bees have dwindled to the point where there are not enough wild bees to keep food on our tables. Paved supercenter parking lots and suburban wastelands, with their rows upon rows of meticulously groomed green lawns, provide no home for the bees. As our towns and cities grown out of control, ever intruding on the shrinking forests, the insects we depend upon to support our food supply are crowded out and pushed aside. 3 Prevention Strategies
Although it may not immediately solve the problem of CDD, there can be no question that it is imperative to improve the health of our commercial bees. The evidence and symptoms identified so far as possible causes of CCD all seem to be related to the poor health and in turn the lowered immune systems of the bees. The reasons for this condition could be poor diet, stress, pesticides, or parasitic infection. Transporting bees all across the nation only leads to elevated stress levels for the bees and a higher risk of parasitic and viral transmission.
As with most forms of industrialized agriculture, the animals that provide the product are treated like machines until they are pushed to the limit (nothoney). By manipulating the natural system of pollination into something unnatural, we have compromised not only the survival of the bees, but the survival of humans worldwide. The system we have set up is simply not sustainable.
The only bee colonies who have not reported losses due to CCD are those who practice organic farming. Organic beekeepers claim that this is because they do not feed their bees artificial food, such as corn syrup, nor antibiotics. Bees raised in this environment and also not exposed to the stress of being hauled around the nation as cargo in the backs of 18-wheelers. Because of these differences, there is a definite advantage when it comes to the overall health of naturally raised bees.
Organic beekeepers claim that by allowing their bees to build natural combs they have had less incidence of parasitic infection. This is because, they say, the natural structure built by the bees allows for less intrusion and growth of things such as the parasitic varroa mite (celcias).
Commercial beekeepers provide the foundation for their hives, supplying cells which are larger than what a bee would build for itself. These over-sized frameworks are used by farmers to promote larger bees. It therefore seems that organic beekeeping may be the only salvation for the agricultural industry. By allowing the bees to behave in their natural way, the risk of sickness, disease, and colony collapse is greatly reduced.
Changes should not stop at beekeeping methods, however. By making our neighborhoods and lawns friendly to insects, we are promoting the health, well being, and growth of wild bee colonies, thereby contributing to the overall number of bees present in the world today. Each of us should also take an active part in decisions about development and city planning, always seeking to provide an ecologically sound alternative to modern building practices.
To conclude, colony collapse disorder is a serious threat to the bee population and to our global food supply. By industrializing the pollination industry to that extent we have, the bees have suffered. No one should be surprised that commercial bees are dying in the fields of an illness they have been made susceptible to by years of bad beekeeping practices.
If this trend continues, not only will the ecosystem be nearly depleted of many important plant species, but our entire world food supply will be in jeopardy. Better beekeeping methods, such as organic farming, exposing the bees to less stress from travel, and limiting pesticide use are the only paths to halting CCD and to promoting the recovery of the honeybee.
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