Is this for real?
There is, perhaps justifiably, some amount of skepticism concerning the actual reality of Colony Collapse Disorder in the beekeeping world. That skepticism extends to much of the world for that matter. True, lots of bees have died in the past couple of years both in the U.S. and around the globe. But identifiable things keep coming up to explain (some, most, all take your pick) of those deaths.
For instance, the recent flap in the U.K., where beekeepers marched on 10 Downing Street and Parliament demanding more money for bee research and firing off their smokers is one good example. They admitted, quietly, that the bees that died and the honey crop that didnt materialize there last season were mostly victims of poor weather.
Huge bee losses recently in France are suspected to be due to misapplied pesticides, and significant colony losses in Spain are being blamed on that new Nosema disease thats not so new any more.
Even here in the states, some beekeepers can quite clearly point to something explainable causing their colony losses ... even when those losses are large and have not been seen in such portions previously.
But at the same time, some of these losses are not explainable and there seems no reason they should occur. Even after samples have been examined and a multitude of sins are exposed, these sins alone do not explain the evacuation of adult bees from hundreds, sometimes thousands of colonies in an operation.
If this were the first time this or a similar set of circumstances had occurred perhaps we would have a different perspective. Sadly, it is not.
Disappearing Disease. Autumn or Spring Decline. Mary Celeste Syndrome. These are some of the names that have been given in the past to this crazy honey bee behavior. These and many more occurrences in the beekeeping archives have described similar situations ... the rapid loss of adult bees, perhaps leaving lots of brood, the queen and a small number of very young worker bees. The studies have given new names each time the symptoms show up and when done, the studies have dutifully given the results of the studies, and have reached the same conclusions nearly always ... the bees disappeared, and when we went to study it ... the disease disappeared too.
Dr. Malcolm Sanford, one of the regular columnists for my magazine Bee Culture, recently gave a series of lectures on this very subject, and some of his observations bear repeating. He looked at one of the first well-documented cases of this phenomena that occurred around 1900 in the U.K.
On a small island off the coast of the U.K. a new malady appeared, and the bees in hundreds of colonies mysteriously disappeared. The symptoms are now familar ... adult bees abandoned the hive leaving brood and perhaps the queen and a few young bees. Extenuating circumstances at the time focused on new management techniques ... primarily that of switching most colonies from the traditional skeps being used at the time, to the new and technologically advanced movable frame hives. Management was totally different and one well known scientific voice of the time claimed the losses were due to the fact that the beekeepers did not have the skills necessary to manage bees in hives, nor knew how to reduce the stress this put on the bees, combined with the very poor weather that was ongoing at the time.
At the same time, another voice, that from a monk at Buckfast Abby, and a world renown honey bee breeder, said that the losses were due to a new, silent, unidentified disease that was killing these bees as fast as they could.
The cause, it was found out years later, was indeed a new disease ... a pest actually. It was a tiny, tiny mite, one small enough to hide inside a honey bees breathing tubes that caused this disaster. But when you put stress on a sick bee, that sick bee gets even sicker it turns out. So, were both right?
Skip ahead to the 1950s, here in the states. A malady similar to what we have now, occurring in similar parts of the U.S. as now, and leaving researchers equally baffled. Some said it was genetic. Some said it was an unknown disease, and some thought it was nutritional. But one summed it up brilliantly. He said ... this is truly disappearing disease, because every time we go to study it ... it disappears. The bottom line ... we dont know.
Dr. Sanfords lecture also mentioned what has changed in the beekeeping world recently that could lead to a situation like this ... something similar perhaps to that movable frame hive situation. But indeed, almost nothing has changed since those events in 1900 (a sad statement, perhaps). We do some things differently, but we dont do many different things ... if that makes sense.
But a few things are different now than then. We know more about honey bee biology and genetics now than then. Lots more. We can measure problems in parts per billion and we now measure how far we move bees in thousands of miles each year if we are migratory beekeepers. Plus, we have to contend with millions of acres of the same crops in most of the places we put bees because we routinely put our bees in what can only be described as honey bee deserts. Not because we want to but because thats where they have to go to do the pollination jobs beekeepers are paid to do. Put those bees in the middle of that huge pumpkin patch and let them stay there until the pumpkin flowers are done. Actually, bees can starve in the midst of ... millions of pumpkin flowers because pumpkin flowers are not all that generous with nutritious nectar and pollen. The bees know, but sadly, we have little input in this situation. Or, perhaps we dont input as much as we could.
Our bees also have to contend with a host of previously unseen and unknown pests in the viral and fungal world. Theres something like 18, probably more viruses that honey bees are prone to. Most of these viruses dont cause problems most of the time ... but all of them can sometimes. Add to that the fact that we now know honey bees actually have immune systems ... simple and primitive though they may be ... they have them and they can be compromised.
Finally, into the mix throw a new and unique family of agricultural pesticides that can mess with our honey bees in new and unique ways when they meet in the world of nectar and pollen collection. These new pesticides can render that simple and primitive immune system more vulnerable to any one or more of those viruses that come along. As a finishing touch, the coups de grace, give those bees, those immune compromised, virus- and diet- and moved-around-the-world stressed bees a totally nutritionally incomplete monumentally unbalanced plate full of food that may be no better than Big Macs and Moon Pies day in and day out and what do you have?
Well, it may be disappearing disease. Or Mary Celeste Syndrome, or Colony Collapse Disorder. What do you think?
So no matter if you are a skeptic or not, the history we know of and the studies we have done so far have shown that our bees are subject to a difficult life. Beekeepers have some control over some of the circumstances, and the recent research has taught us plenty about making life better for our bees, while still using them to work with us.
At the same time it has been shown that there are dangers in the world that we subject our bees to that we have no control over. None, that is, except not keeping bees the way we are keeping bees now, on the scale we keep bees, in the places we keep bees. But if we remove our bees from the killing fields of agriculture, is agriculture any better off than if the all the bees actually died? Something has to change. Beekeepers are changing the way they keep bees because they know better whats bad and whats not. Now, its up to the rest of you.
Its no wonder bees are unhappy. Are we getting the message?
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