For several years, U.S. honey bees — key for good crop yields — have been dying off or abandoning colonies en masse, resulting in fears for the pollination of U.S. crops. The die-offs and set of odd behaviors exhibited by honey bees is known as colony collapse disorder, a malady researchers have yet to pinpoint the cause of.
In 2006-07, problems with colony collapse disorder-affected hives had largely been an East Coast problem. Tens of thousands of colonies were lost to the disease. By last summer, the problem had shifted to the West Coast, where crops like almonds rely heavily on the insects.
Where does the U.S. apiary industry stand now? “Over this winter, we’ve not yet had dramatic reports of honey bee colonies dying all over,” says Jerry Hayes, assistant chief for Plant and Apiary Inspection in Florida. “Have we had reports from individual beekeepers with dramatic losses? Yes, that continues.”
Early reports out of some California almond pollination locations are that bees are declining in strength. However, at this time of year, that isn’t unusual.
“Since a lot of the losses last year were while the bees were in almonds, we’re just biding our time for the next couple of weeks to see if there’s a trend going here. Or maybe Darwin’s in action and all the weak ones have been killed off and we’ll have a bit of a reprieve with stronger bees left. The jury is still out.”
Asked if researchers have determined a cause for colony collapse disorder, Hayes says the search is still ongoing. However, “we know a lot more about the stresses the bees are under. There has been a lot of interest in this. Money has been spent on CCD and honey bee health issues in general. There are some new projects that will be getting up to speed this year.
“Unfortunately, research never moves quickly. But there have been a lot of smart people with expensive equipment looking at honey bees who haven’t studied bees before.
“All sorts of things, some maybe scary, have been found. At this point, we’re not sure exactly what it means, though.”
Asked for examples, Hayes points to studies being done at the University of Montana in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The Defense Department has equipment that can analyze air, tissue and what have you for pathogens so that our troops can be protected if there’s a biological warfare threat.”
This Department of Defense precise equipment has been used on honey bees and found a “tremendous amount of virus-size particles in them. It was quite surprising. But what does that mean? We aren’t sure if these have been introduced or are something that has been around. Most of these viral particles don’t have names.”
Other viruses worry researchers. “In particular, Israeli acute paralysis virus was identified in Israel but seems to be most prevalent in Australian honey bees, which have been imported in large numbers over the last several years.”
There’s also a type of fungal pathogen that lives in the gut of honey bees. “It causes them to not be able to absorb nutrients, become weaker and die prematurely.”
With all the analysis of honey bees, the comb they live on, and the pollen they bring in, researchers have found an array of chemicals. “Those include pesticides and environmental toxins. Honey bees are flying dust-mops, if you will, when they go into the environment. Because they forage in such large areas, they bring all sorts of things back to the hive you wouldn’t expect.”
Case in point: Hayes and colleagues have about 100 colonies of honey bees they use for research purposes. “We decided to look at those just to see what was in them. Lo and behold, in some colonies, there were high levels of styrene. I was thinking, ‘Where in the world is styrene coming from?’
“Well, we began looking in the area and there’s a plastic pipe manufacturer about 30 miles from the research colonies. As the (materials used to make pipes) goes up the chimney, it’s spread around and bees pick it up as they forage on flowers.”
Honey bees are environmental samplers, says Hayes. As such, they can be used in unexpected ways.
“Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, honey bees were used in Canada to find gold deposits. That’s because as plants take up minerals from the soil, they concentrate them in the pollen and nectar.
“Researchers and mining experts would analyze the pollen bees brought back. The pollen with higher gold content had a better chance of coming from an area containing larger gold deposits. Imagine that!”
Take a step back, says Hayes, “and consider how the bees are interfacing with the environment. Getting the whole picture isn’t easy.”
Regarding Australian honey bee imports, a vocal faction of U.S. beekeepers want them kept out of the country. Last year, a plan for the importation of Mexican honey bees was likewise contentious. Does Hayes believe concerns about importing foreign honey bees are overblown?
“Not really. In regards to imported honey bees, I don’t believe we have good enough oversight of the pests, predators and diseases that might be brought in with these insects. We certainly appreciate the Australian Department of Agriculture studying and surveying their colonies.
“However, it’s already been proven that their honey bees had one virus and, because they haven’t been challenged by varroa mites and some of the other things U.S. honey bees routinely deal with, they’re genetically weaker. They don’t live very long. They live long enough to pollinate, of course, but another concern is they weaken the U.S. honey bee population.”
Last year, Mexican honey bees weren’t allowed into the country. But the need for them wasn’t as pressing as once feared.
“In fact, the Californian almond industry, which has been driving the commercial U.S. beekeeping industry, seems to be shrinking. California has many issues with adequate water. Growers have to pay for water and with the lower price of almonds, some have decided to stop with the crop. In some cases, they’re actually bulldozing orchards. The formerly brisk pace of orchard planting has slowed.”
Also, for crop insurance purposes, the rules about having two honey bee colonies per acre are being modified. The requirement could be dropped to one colony per acre.
“All that means there’s less need of honey bees in California. That should continue at least for a few years.”
How are current honey prices affecting the beekeeping industry? “The honey price is still up, although not as high as it was last spring. Of course, the overall economic downturn has impacted the bee industry too. But the prices are still high enough for good grades of honey that the expense of East Coast keepers heading west, along with less need for pollination already mentioned, make it cheaper to leave the bees on this side (of the country). That means money is being saved from transportation costs. Also, bees that aren’t involved in big moves don’t seem to have the same health concerns.”
Europeans, warns Hayes, are banning pesticide use “left and right because of pollinator concerns. I don’t know that’s the answer. Chemicals in production agriculture are tools that, when used well and wisely, are a positive.”
Many people believe chemicals are the “boogeyman” in the continuing problems with honey bees. Hayes agrees that “they probably don’t help. But I also want your readers to know that without those tools it would difficult for all of us to eat three meals a day. We must have a balance between protection of pollinators and producing quality crops.
“Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. And the USDA projects that the United States will get something like 40 percent of its vegetables from China by 2012-13. Another projection is the United States will be a net food importer in 50 years.”
If no one cares about that, “I’m wasting my time. If they do care, though, they should take comfort in knowing researchers are trying to solve these pollinator issues. But it takes time and, as we do our work, beekeepers are holding on by their fingernails.”