As of Labor Day weekend ... bees are still dying from symptoms that have been identified as Colony Collapse Disorder. Not many, yet. But this is when it starts. So lets look at whats going on.
So far the villain in Colony Collapse Disorder is mostly the lack of information.
Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus was implicated early on, but so far it hasnt moved past the 'found in some samples' role. Continuing greenhouse research, where individual honey bees are infected with the virus definitely shows that the pathogen kills bees. But so do a host of other viruses that were found in the initial samples. The jury is still out on IAPV, at least until newer studies are published.
Other researchers are studying viruses, some known, some not, but so far nothing concrete has turned up ... or at least nothing that anybody is talking about. Thats the trouble with science ... too often the information gets sat on until the results are published ... not reviewed and given the green light but actually put on paper (or turned into electrons to grace your computer screen) and released. Some publishing outlets are quicker, some slower but all have the same criteria. So if theres something out there well just have to wait.
Some of the early work -- simply collecting samples of bees, wax, larvae, and pollen -- are finally coming to the top of the pile and the results, some of which have been explored here, have been eye-opening, and mostly downright scary. Beekeeper-applied chemicals to control varroa certainly are hugely evident in the samples collected ... not unlike the termite chemicals, lawn chemicals, garden chemicals, pet chemicals, and all the rest that we walk in, swim in, eat, touch and absorb everyday in our homes, work and play. Pesticides, to no ones surprise, are abundant in our lives and equally abundant in the lives of our honey bees.
One of the unknowns, or maybe-unknowns, are the effects that those well-publicized new pesticides are having. They have made international headlines and definitely cant be overlooked. And advocacy group, Beyond Pesticides, commented recently on these, and said that two of the primary active ingredients of concern are clothianidin and imidacloprid, both in the neonicotinoid family of chemicals. They are systemic pesticides, meaning the chemical is incorporated into plant tissue and can therefore be present in pollen and nectar, which is of particular importance to bees. They also have long persistence in the soil and can be absorbed by multiple generations of crops, increasing the likelihood of exposure for bees. Meanwhile, the manufacturers claim the chemicals safe and have data to prove it. But others in France and Germany claim just the opposite and are doing everything in their power to rid the world of these new poisons, and in the U.S. the EPA stands in the middle ... and may soon be standing in court defending their role in approving these chemicals for use.
But theres more going on than just pesticides, though those are definitely destructive. Other discoveries came from those samples taken earlier. One surprise was the nutrition deficiencies that were discovered ... some of the bees that were sampled definitely were not in the best health because they had not had enough good food to eat. That, too, is a management concept that beekeepers are already turning around. This summer smart beekeepers are making protein supplements available ... some of the new diets are being explored, new diets have been concocted, and more diets are on the drawing board, so to speak, and for the most part all seem to have given our bees a boost. Almost anything is better than nothing, and good food can solve a lot of problems, whether it's your diet, your child's daily bread, or a honey bee's ration. That there were so many bees in diet-deficiency seems at first odd, perhaps, but bees have slowly declined for several years, and monoculture agriculture has continued to increase during the same time.
But not only protein-deficiencies were evident ... carbohydrates, too were found wanting. Not so much volume, but quality. Is high fructose corn syrup as bad, or good, for bees as it is, or isnt for us? Some seem to think HFCS is evil incarnate, no matter who or what eats it. Others have shown that if the HFCS is made well, and then that quality preserved and protected its just fine. Meanwhile, some beekeepers are switching to plain old sugar ... sucrose solution ... and seem to see better results. But sugar costs more.
The new disease ... that Nosema cerane thing ... isnt anywhere near being solved either. What is it, how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, when do you treat for it ... all questions needing answers and nobody is looking it seems. Well, not quite. Researchers in Europe are studying this I understand ... but again, nothing has been published ... so bees die of a disease that we cant treat. Is this CCD? Hmmmmm. Dont know.
Which brings up the tired old song of research funding. I talked about the $4.1 million grant delivered recently, and I looked at the scientists receiving the money. One industry spokesperson (me) recently said, mostly in jest, that once that money was spread out over all the scientists, over all the years, each would receive about a buck and a half ... Thats not quite true, but the concept shouldnt be ignored. So far, USDA has been monumentally slow in getting things moving. They have a couple of large scale, actually profoundly practical studies going ... funded by existing money, not the new money that was supposed to come down from the farm bill ... at least so far. But this begs the question ... if the money is being used for these studies, what isnt getting done? Well, we dont know, do we?
Colony Collapse Disorder hasnt gone away. Beekeepers are harvesting honey, if they have some to harvest. They are beginning plans for moving south or west for wintering or pollination, and wondering if they again will have to scratch to get bees to meet pollination contract promises. Or is this the year it would be better to stay home? Honey prices are strong, moving is even more expensive this year, and all that stress ... maybe home is where the honey bee is should get more attention.
But one more thing has come to light. Organization.
With all the noise made about lack of funding, one question keeps coming up ... why arent beekeepers doing some of this funding? Why is it only the government that should do this? Good question.
And heres the answer. There are four major funding sources within the beekeeping industry that have already made significant contributions to finding the answers to Colony Collapse Disorder. More -- way more, actually -- than government sources, and more is on the way. And if you are looking to help solve this critical problem and want to know how ... stay tuned. Well open a whole set of doors and introduce you to the best of the beekeeping world.
Have a safe and sane Holiday week....
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