Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bee Informed, Part 3: The "Mystery" of Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is not new. You've probably heard of it before, when it made headlines here and there between 2004 and 2006. Lately, though, there hasn't really been much noise made about it. I guess that problem has been solved, right?

The fact is that CCD is still going strong. In short, CCD is a simultaneous global die-off, and in many cases, disappearance of entire colonies of honeybees. Considering how vital honeybees are to agriculture, their decline is having, and will continue to have, profound effects on our food crops. The numbers differ, but something in the area of 76% of commercial crops are dependent on bees for their pollination. Without bees, these crops would produce such low yields that they would become impossible to farm.

There have been many theories put forward about the causes of CCD: The natural, such as Varroa mites, parasites that attach themselves to bee larvae and feed on their blood; Nosema, another parasite which causes damage to the bees' digestive system; foulbrood, which is caused by a bacteria that kills the larvae; viruses, chalkbrood, hive beetles, wax moths, and tracheal mites; and the unnatural, such as cellular transciever towers' and cell phones' electromagnetic fields, foreign sabotage, genetically-modified crops, pesticides, and plain old bad beekeeping.

With so many possible culprits, CCD has been considered a mystery by beekeepers, scientists and the media for over a decade. And, indeed, the cause may be a combination of factors. But one possible cause stands out above the rest: pesticides -- in particular a relatively new class of pesticide called neonicotinoids. For well over half a century, topical pesticides were sprayed onto plants from the ground and the air, blanketing them with poisons, and, in the process, damaging the air and water. In the late 1990s, after decades of pressure to develop more "eco-friendly" pesticides, the chemical company Bayer began marketing neonicotinoids, which are systemic insecticides containing synthesized nicotine, and applied directly to seeds before they are planted, thereby incorporating a powerful neurotoxin into the plant itself, and eliminating the need to spray poisons. A clever idea, but one that has proven disastrous to the honeybees.

Shortly after the neonicotinoids came into widespread use, the populations of honeybees began to decline at a shocking rate in the U.S. and Canada, the U.K., and throughout Europe, most notably in France, Germany and Italy. Brazil, Chile, India, China, Taiwan and Greece have also seen a decline. Commercial and hobbyist beekeepers alike reported staggering losses in their colonies - many of which completely disappeared, leaving no traces of dead bees behind. People have been keeping bees for thousands of years, and any beekeeper can tell you that normal, healthy bees simply don't behave that way. This bizarre phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and was (almost) immediately recognized as a potential disaster to agriculture worldwide. But much of the "mystery" surrounding CCD is due to misleading pseudoscience that has been put forth by the chemical companies themselves. When it became more and more apparent that the toxins in neonicotinoids were damaging insects' central nervous systems (as they were designed to do), Bayer released the results of their own tests, which showed that the amounts of the chemicals present in samples were not enough to kill honeybees. Therefore, they reasoned, CCD must be due to some other, natural cause, or a combination of them. But the chemical company didn't bother to test whether the concentrations of neonicotinoids in pollen collected and stored in the hive to feed young bees was having any long-term effects on the colonies as a whole, or to measure the cumulative damage done to subsequent generations of bees exposed to the chemicals throughout their entire lives.

Indeed, the very term "Colony Collapse Disorder" is false and misleading, since a "disorder" implies a natural phenomenon, not a coordinated attack on their nervous systems by a deliberate action. Honeybees have always been subject to diseases and parasites, but before the use of neonicotinoids, beekeepers had never seen such dramatic, simultaneous, worldwide losses in their populations. There is good reason to suspect that continuing damage to the bees' central nervous systems causes them to lose their capacity for navigation, so that when they leave the hive to forage for food, they become lost and cannot find their way back, and that this is why so many entire colonies of bees have vanished without a trace, instead of just dying in and around the hives. Moreover, when a colony is wiped out by a disease or parasites, it almost always happens during the winter, but the ongoing collapse of honeybee colonies has been occurring during the summer months - the height of the bees' foraging season.

Of course, honeybees were not the intended target of these insecticides, but they have clearly been shown to be affected. Neonicotinoids don't differentiate between unwanted pests and beneficial allies, and their continued use presents an obvious danger not only to the honeybees, but ultimately, to agriculture as a whole. In 1999, France took a dramatic and necessary step: in response to beekepers' protests, and confronted with compelling scientific evidence of the insecticides' role in CCD, the Minister of Agriculture banned the use of "Gaucho" (a neonicotinoid insecticide produced by Bayer) on sunflowers, and then, in 2004, extended the ban to its use on corn. Germany and Italy followed suit soon after. The results? In the summer of 2009, Italy reported only one collapsed colony - in an area where leftover Gaucho-treated seeds had been planted. France and Germany also reported that their honeybees are back again and thriving. During the years before the ban, while neonicotinoid-treated corn was being grown, beekeepers had been losing 30 to 40 percent of their total number of hives. As William of Ockham concluded, the simplest solution is usually the correct one.

There have been continuing studies, and lawsuits, over the use of neonicotinoids in the United States, but at present, the EPA has done very little about it - instead relying on Bayer's specious claims that their product presents no danger to bees. Funding was promised for a comprehensive study of the insecticides' effects on honeybees in 2008, but so far, that money hasn't materialized. This year, the EPA has begun embarking on some minor, but long overdue, studies of the effects of commercial use of neonicotinoids, even while downplaying their possible role in CCD, but their official stance has remained the same: that the causes of CCD are still unknown. The use of neonicotinoids in the U.S. is still unregulated, and there are literally hundreds of varieties sold to both commercial farmers and home gardeners (the most widely used being "Admire," made by Bayer). The bees are continuing to decline, and the chemical, pharmaceutical and agribusiness lobbies are as powerful as ever. If, in fact, nicotine-based systemic insecticides are largely to blame for CCD, then without funding to study their range of detrimental effects relevant to bees, and with no limitations placed on their use, the outcome will be as unhappy as it is easy to predict.

What you can do:
  • Visit the National Resource Defense Council's website:
  • Contact the head of the EPA:
Director of the Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20460
(202) 564-4700
  • Contact your senators and representatives

Tell them what needs to be done:
  • The use of nicotine-based pesticides must be suspended until third-party testing can verify their safety at all levels, including sublethal
  • The pesticide approval process must be investigated in the context of antitrust violations
  • Congress must conduct an independent investigation into the economic losses suffered by both beekeepers and farmers due to nicotine insecticides

I've tried to keep this article as brief as possible while giving an overview of CCD. To truly explore the issue would take volumes, and indeed, a vast amout has been written on the subject. Here are a few links with more information:

Wikipedia, Diseases of the Honeybee:

Information about neonicotinoids and how to avoid their use:

The EPA's site, with dozens of articles about CCD and insecticides:

Inspiring news from Italy, post-ban:

The information contained in this article has been compiled by me from many, often contradictory, sources, and represents my understanding of the current state of CCD. I am not an expert on the subject, but it is my intention to present information that is supported by both scientific data and reasonable hypothesis, and to raise awareness of the enormity of the issue.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bees: Is There Anything They Can't Do?

Got an elephant problem?

An experiment conducted in Kenya by Lucy King of the University of Oxford has shown that elephants are afraid of bees. So afraid, in fact, that they make a specific sound to warn other elephants that there are bees nearby. By playing a recording of the sounds of bees, or even of the sound that elephants make that means "bees," a herd of elephants will take off running.

This could be a useful tool for farmers in Africa whose crops are subject to raids by elephants. Installing beehives around human settlements has been proven to work to keep elephants away.
For now.

Click the link for the article in New Scientist:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Beehavior: The "Waggle Dance"

Honeybees are considered to possess the most complex communication system, aside from primates, in the natural world. The discovery of their "dance language" was recognized as the first clear example of a non-human system that offers an abstract representation of the real world.

It has been shown that the more vigorously a bee "waggles" during this sharing of information, the more attractive the food source. Inferior food sources inspire less energetic waggling.

How does a "dancer" attract an audience from among 50,000 bees in the near-total darkness of the hive? Experiments have proven that specific areas on the comb are assigned as "dance floors" with pheromone markers, so that bees within the hive know exactly where to go to find foragers who have discovered a desirable food source. In addition, a dancing bee attracts attention from others nearby through the vibrations carried by the comb structure itself. When they feel the comb vibrating under their feet, bees know that someone is communicating directions, and they need simply to go to the predesignated dance area on the comb to find the dancer and receive those instructions.

In this video, the bees surrounding the dancer are using their antennae to track the dancer's movements. After following the dance for a few cycles, they can figure out both the direction and the distance they need to fly in order to find the newly-discovered food source.

Much like bees, I often have thoughts and feelings that can only be expressed through dance...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bee Informed, Part 2: Planting a Bee Garden

If you're planting a garden this spring, why not make it one the bees will enjoy as much as you do?

Bee gardens, as you have no doubt surmised, feature flowers that attract bees. Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are just one of about 3,500 species of bees in North America, almost all of which are pollinators. Other notable species include bumblebees, orchard mason bees, digger bees, carpenter bees and cuckoo bees, to name only a few.

Bees visit flowers to harvest nectar and pollen, both of which they use for food: nectar sustains the bees on their foraging flights to and from the hive, and pollen is collected and stored in the hive to feed the larvae. Pollination occurs incidentally, when pollen from one flower clings to the hairs covering the bees' bodies, and is transferred to the next flowers visited - resulting in more plants with more flowers. The garden benefits from this free pollination, the bees benefit from more flowers with more nectar and pollen, and gardeners (and farmers) benefit from increased yield. The disadvantages? None.

In light of the alarming decline of the bees' population in recent years, planting a bee garden is a small but invaluable step that anyone can take in order to ensure that bees can continue their vital contribution to the ecosystem as a whole. While bee gardens aren't a solution to the bees' population crisis, they do offer much-needed help to our often-overlooked partners in survival, who assist so much and ask so little. And every little bit counts.

Click the pic above to enlarge a short list of plants that are guaranteed to attract bees. This list represents only a small fraction of the plants that bees love to visit, but it may give you some ideas. And if you keep your eyes open, there's a good chance you'll see some types of bees you've never noticed before. Ideally, it's best to use flowering plants that are native to your area, so as to encourage established colonies of local bee species.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Setting Up the Hive

Took a trip out to Vinland Valley Nursery this afternoon. The proprietors, Doug and Amy, have generously donated a small piece of their property for my hive. It's virtually ideal: a nice, out-of-the-way clearing with a southern exposure, and only about a hundred yards from the nursery itself. The bees will be happy, the plants will be happy, and I'm happy that the project is moving forward.

What you see here is the lower hive body (the brood chamber), covered by the outer cover and resting on the bottom board, all atop four cinderblocks. The entrance is blocked with an unpainted dowel, to ensure that no other bees (or anything else) decide to take up residence inside.

It's empty for now, but the bees should arrive in about a month (hopefully earlier). More pics, and video, coming soon!

The lady behind the camera is my queen, the beautiful Ginny.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bee Informed, Part 1: The Parts of a Hive

The standard hive used by apiculturists was invented in 1851 by Lorenzo Langstroth of Philadelphia, and because of the simplicity, practicality, and efficiency of its design, it has remained fundamentally unchanged to this day. Click the pic to enlarge.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Honeybee Conservancy

The Honeybee Conservancy is a 501c3 non-profit formed in response to the bee crisis. We are committed to working individually and collectively to boost bee populations, strengthen our environment and maintain our food supply.

There are some great links on this site as well. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Painting of the Hive

The hive arrived today, courtesy of the friendly folks at BetterBee. After an equipment check, the painting began. I chose a light gray instead of the more traditional white to reduce glare, and because I had it lying around anyway. Tomorrow will see a second coat, and paint for the join surfaces, the outer cover and the bottom board.

The man behind the camera is Mr. Sanchez.