A remarkable phenomenon receiving very little press attention clearly places US fresh vegetable and fruit supplies this year in potentially grave danger. For unexplainable reasons, nearly half of our nation’s honey bees have completely disappeared.
At the heart of the problem is a near total absence of mature worker bees, the ones which fly out and obtain nectar from flowers, pollinating plants as they go along, then return to the hive and actually make the honey from their collected nectar supply. They’ve simply disappeared without a trace, leaving behind their hives, their honey, their broods, and their queen. And, without the worker bees, hives are completely doomed and have died in the many thousands.
This die-off is primarily afflicting commercial bees, those that have been bred and genetically altered to create “super polinators” and the like.
Scientists are calling this mysterious phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder” or “Dwindle Disease.” Whatever the cause or title, honey bee colonies are being decimated at a terrifying pace in 24 states so far in the last six months, with that number expected to grow as northern US beekeepers check on their own populations once the snows begin to thaw. My own state of Texas is seeing a 70% loss of entire colonies since November of last year. The West Coast is reporting up to 60% losses.
This spells sincere disaster for a myriad of fruits, vegetables and nuts that depend upon bees for pollination. Topping the list of crops in peril is Florida’s orange crop and, from across the country, California’s most lucrative crop of all: Almonds. Running a close second are the blueberry crops of the north and northeast. And there are so many other crops we consume by tons annually that are totally taken for granted.
This is certainly not the first disaster to strike honey bees in the US, with five or so outbreaks of wide-spread decimations going back to the late 1800s when records were first maintained. But today’s plague is unquestionably the greatest destruction in not only numbers of bees affected, but in the likely damage and cost in unpollinated crops (and dearth thereof) ahead this Spring and Summer.
Of additional worry is that today’s dwindling beekeeping profession – at its very healthiest – maintains less than half of the honey bees that were used to pollinate crops in the continental US only 25 years ago. As with so many other industries, modernization over the years has forced a multitude of beekeepers into other occupations to make a decent living. And the remaining beekeepers have been forced to breed stronger and “hairier” bees to enhance every available characteristic necessary to improve pollination and remain competitive. Bees no longer stay put in an area, but are loaded into tractor trailers and trucked all across our nation to pollinate crops.
No one really knows what is causing the die-off, but scientists, universities, extension offices and industry leaders are honing down the list of culprits. A meeting of these folks was held just last week in Austin, Texas and another held last month in Florida, and both are citing the same list of targets.
Defined symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, are:
– Adult bee population suddenly gone, with no evidence or accumulation of dead bees and cumulative “dead-out” rate of greater than 30% of the colonies;
– Queen bee remaining in the hive with only young bees;
– Brood, pollen and honey remain untouched in the hive; and
– Little or no evidence found of robbing, wax moths or small hive beetle attacks.
The tentative hypothesis of scientists is that a virus, likely an Aspergillus species, is at fault, since high concentrations of that strain have been found in dissected bees. But for that virus to have attacked, bees must have become susceptible because of lowered immunities and/or extreme stress.
The source of lowered immunity and stress has been suggested to be the likely culprit of a multitude of pesticides used to control mite populations that have plagued bees in the past, which are further causing Queens to spawn fewer workers and which are also living shorter lives than ever before. A cited source of stress is due to beekeeper’s common day practice of loading up their hives and trucking them from one crop to another across the nation. This, scientists say, may be spreading the Aspergillus viruses, while the bees are contained in these trailers, and certainly adding to the stress of the bees by being constantly uprooted.
Personally, this concerns the dickens out of me. I understand and respect the symbiosis of honey bees in our food supply, so my fear level here is very high. I also have long turned away from commercial honeys in favor of the incredibly fragrant and flavorful honeys from local sources, which I have supported strongly for years. So my self-interest in keeping local bees healthy and happy is stellar.
Want to learn more? The New York Times did a nice article last week found here:
Further reading and information is available at the American Beekeeping Federation at:
And all the scientific data you can digest can be found at the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research & Extension Consortium (MAAREC) here, with links to all the state’s individual data and comprehensive mappings:
Trust me folks: If the honey bees go, so do we.