Colony Collapse and Other Perils

No doubt, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has become a household buzzword.  And thankfully so, as most people now know that bees are in peril, and that their demise surely means grave changes worldwide  – not just for humanity, but for ecosystems and their inhabitants everywhere, at all levels of the food chain.

Bees are an indicator species, which means that their health, or lack thereof, can be used as a measure of the health of ecosystems in general.  That said, the statistics concerning the decline in bee populations worldwide should be alarming to us humans, who rely so heavily on the resources of our planet, bees notwithstanding.  Since 1960, there has been a 50% decline in bee populations worldwide — a 50 percent drop in 50 years. That’s alarming!  And “Colony Collapse” is just one of the contributors.

CCD, a term coined in 2006,  is characterized by a rapid, unexplained decline in a colony of the adult bee population.  In many instances, hives are found to be completely empty, as all of the bees absconded from the hive.   The reasons for the rapid demise of a colony are still not entirely understood, although the “sudden disappearance” aspect was more media hype than mystery.  It is, in fact, normal bee behavior for sick bees to leave the colony — in effect, they remove themselves and whatever ails them from the colony, in an effort to prevent contagion. The normal life cycle of the bee will even accelerate, moving house bees to field bees more rapidly, to aid their ability to leave and take their illness away with them.  If an entire colony does this en masse, which is the mysterious part of CCD, the appearance will be that the bees just vanished.  Another theory is that the bees recognize a malady in the hive, engorge themselves with honey, and leave to find another colony; which will accept a bee bearing gifts (hence the honey engorgement).  Unfortunately, that bee might also be bringing whatever ailed its home colony, thereby spreading the problem to the new hive.

The cause of CCD  is not as simple as a particular pathogen or even a collection of pathogens found in hives afflicted by it.  Studies have shown levels of toxins in the dead bees from colony collapse to exist in colonies that have not collapsed at all.  Scientists are left believing that CCD is the result of a combination of pathogens and other stresses that perhaps create a “tipping point” that leads to the collapse of the colony.  And it isn’t just pesticides or other pollutants that can stress a colony.  Migratory beekeeping — moving the bees around for commercial pollination stresses bees; drastic changes in weather patterns stress bees; lack of appropriate husbandry by beekeepers, stress bees.  Obviously, pesticide use and other pollutants that impact the environment in general, stress bees.  Then, of course, there are the many bee-related diseases, many of which didn’t exist 30-40 years ago, like varroa mite, that stress colonies.  No wonder they’re struggling!

If you are someone who gets upset by all of this… you aren’t alone!  But what can we do? What can YOU do? We believe that the most important thing any one of us can do is be an advocate for the bees.  Tell people — everywhere, all the time — not to spray pesticides – especially on bee swarms.  Educate children about bees — they are natural conduits for the wonders of this small pollinator, and they must not grow up afraid of bees!  Make sure your neighbors know the difference between bees and wasps or hornets.  Learn to recognize bees other than the honey bee — for it’s not just the honeybee that is in trouble, it’s the native bees too — and plant gardens that encourage their appearance and that will sustain them.  Equally important is the debunking of bee-related myths — for example, that cell phone use contributes to CCD (which it does not) or that bees attack picnics (they do not — yellow jackets do).

The rest we have to trust to the scientists… and they are making progress.  While bee populations are still on the decline, that decline has slowed, as awareness grows and the scientific understanding of bees themselves as well as the perils they face are better understood.

We believe they’ll make it… with a little help from their friends!