Where are the bees?

One-third of the human diet is dependent on insect-pollinated plants, with the majority of the pollination being done by honeybees. Beekeepers and experts suspect a puzzling disorder is the cause for a large decline in the number of hives in the U.S.
Saturday, April 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:44 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008
Beekeeper Jann Amos pours sugar syrup in a hive on a farm outside Columbia. The honeybee population in the U.S. has been declining in number over the last few years, and specialists point to a number of possible causes.

The Lost Colonies: Honeybees are disappearing at alarming rates across the nation. Beekeepers and specialists have identified some causes, such as colony collapse disorder and a harsh winter.

Unraveling colony collapse disorder

Colony collapse disorder is characterized by the sudden death of adult bees in a colony, or hive. A group of researchers, apiculture extension specialists and government officials in the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group has been assembled to investigate the problem. Members of the diverse group are:
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
  • North Carolina State University
  • The University of Illinois
  • The University of Delaware representatives of a bee technology transfer company affiliated with the University of Montana
The goals of the research are: identify potential causal factors common to colony collapse disorder; determine how such factors can underlie the disorder by experimentally reproducing symptoms; and devise preventative measures to disrupt the disorder and ensure strong colonies for pollination. The group’s latest research and information on colony collapse disorder can be found at: ColonyCollapseDisorder.html

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Losses are mounting for Missouri beekeepers as they come out of one of the worst winters in years.

Beekeepers are reporting greater losses of hives compared to past years. Some attribute their losses to colony collapse disorder, or what could be more easily described as vanishing bee syndrome. No matter its name, it is a phenomenon that is killing honeybees at unprecedented rates. Others in the area blame the harsh winter.

“I’m pretty confident what they’re seeing is colony collapse disorder,” said Richard Houseman, an MU associate professor specializing in urban entomology who has received e-mails and pictures of collapsed hives from beekeepers and has personally heard of six cases of the disorder in Missouri.

“These beekeepers are experienced enough to tell the difference between winter loss and colony collapse disorder, and I trust what they’re seeing,” Houseman said.

Colony collapse disorder is characterized by the sudden death of adults in a bee colony, or hive.

The disorder has killed so many hives in Pennsylvania that the cost of pollination there has increased by 50 percent and is expected to rise as the season progresses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one-third of the human diet depends on insect-pollinated plants, with honeybees making up 80 percent of the pollinators. Honeybees are essential for the pollination of more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide, including almonds, apples, broccoli and carrots.

Colony collapse disorder surfaced as early as last spring in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, according to a report in American Honey Producer magazine. It traveled through the middle of the country during the 2006 summer and has appeared in at least 24 states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and California.

Pennsylvania was particularly hard-hit. According to a survey of 43 percent of Pennsylvania beekeepers, those who were hit with the disorder lost an average of 73 percent of their hives compared to the average 25 percent loss by other beekeepers. The affected beekeepers owned 8,953 hives — nearly a quarter of all hives in Pennsylvania.

Colony collapse disorder, along with winter losses, is the latest setback for a U.S. beekeeping industry valued at up to $15 billion a year.

For the past 20 years, the industry has been battling two varieties of mites, the small hive beetle and the wax moth, as well as other parasites and diseases.

“It’s one problem after the other,” said Sharon Gibbons of Gibbons Bee Farm near Columbia.

One of the most puzzling aspects about the disorder is that there are generally no signs of dead bees around the empty hives. The remaining food stores in hives are not robbed by bees from other colonies either. Common pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle are taking a much longer time to invade the hives, which seems to suggest the presence of a deterrent chemical or toxin inside.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that researchers at the University of California at San Francisco had released “highly preliminary” findings implicating a fungus in the disorder. The fungus, a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae, has been found in affected hives around the country.

Entomologist Diana Cox-Foster is quoted in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times article as saying,“We still haven’t ruled out other factors, such as pesticides or inadequate food resources following a drought.” Cox-Foster, of Pennsylvania State University, is working with other scientists on the disorder.

Bruce Boynton, chief executive officer of the National Honey Board, said it is too early to tell how colony collapse disorder might affect the amount of honey produced this year.

“Most honey harvesting is done late in summer,” Boynton said. “It depends on how fast beekeepers who sustained losses are able to rebuild their colonies.”

Boynton estimates that more than half of the honey consumed in the country, or 400 million pounds, is imported annually. There are numerous factors that can affect honey prices, he said, with the world honey supply being one.

“So far, there are no extreme changes in honey prices,” Boynton said.

The beekeepers

Colony collapse disorder received plenty of attention at the annual gathering of the Missouri State Beekeepers Association last month in Jefferson City. The majority were beekeepers with two to 25 hives; a few of the association’s larger beekeepers have more than 100 hives.

Gibbons, program director for the conference, said hive losses of 50 percent were common among association members.

She lost more than 30 percent of the 1,000 hives she maintains in the Columbia and St. Louis areas, but she said she doesn’t think her bees died of colony collapse disorder.

“We haven’t found any hive that was vacated,” she said. “All of the hives either starved or died from the cold.”

Although Gibbons is certain her bees died from the severe winter, she doesn’t discount the Missouri reports of colony collapse disorder.

“There’s always a possibility, but we don’t know how great that is,” she said. “You can have these things happening and not really know. There is also the possibility it might grow, and that’s the scary thing.”

Art Gelder of Walk-About Acres in Columbia was one beekeeper who came out of winter relatively unscathed. Although he had some losses, Gelder said his bees were in good condition.

“The winter was harsher than normal, so I think we’ve had more of a winter loss,” Gelder said.

Jann Amos of Amos Apiaries in Jasper County went from 125 hives in the fall to fewer than 50 coming into spring. He thinks that some of his hives have experienced colony collapse disorder based on symptoms he observed.

“The hives have either no bees or very small clusters of bees,” Amos said. “The queens are laying, but the hives are just not building up. In January, these were big, nice and healthy clusters.”

Amos said the general consensus is that colony collapse disorder has more than one cause.

“It’s a combination of things that came together in the perfect storm,” he said.

Kenny Norman, president of the Missouri State Beekeepers Association, said the larger beekeepers in southwest Missouri had a 50 percent loss or more.

“They told me about the classic colony collapse syndrome: no bees in the box, no clusters and the queen was all by herself,” Norman said.

Norman reported losses of about 60 percent coming out of winter. Only 12 of his 30 hives survived.

“For my bees, it was a winter issue,” Norman said. There weren’t enough bees to keep the hives warm, especially during the winter in January with high winds and subzero ice, Norman said.

“It’s not unusual seeing beekeepers who have heavy losses and those who don’t,” Houseman said. “It’s a similar pattern nationwide.”

The symptoms

Since the symptoms of colony collapse disorder are similar to symptoms reported in the past with heavy losses, researchers are uncertain whether new or old factors are involved. They have, however, identified some potential causes.

The working group investigating colony collapse disorder has collected samples of bees and hive products from more than 100 hives that were affected and not affected with colony collapse disorder. It was found that all adult bees in the former had fungal infection, which led researchers to believe some of the bees’ immune systems had been compromised.

One possible cause being debated is the use of chemicals, particularly pesticides and possibly some fungicides.

Keith Delaplane, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia who spoke at the recent meeting of the Missouri State Beekeepers Association, said pesticides used to kill mites in bee hives might have adverse effects on the honeybees they are intended to protect. Some beekeepers make matters worse by trying to save money with homemade pesticide mixtures, he said.

“There is growing evidence that pesticides cause some lethal effects that are not easy to detect,” Delaplane said.

Delaplane thinks a combination of causes is contributing to colony collapse disorder, including “old parasites, old diseases, small hive beetles, varroa mites and perhaps even a new parasite that was discovered a few months ago.

“It’s been a difficult two to three decades for the beekeeping industry,” Delaplane said. “I admire their gutsy resilience.”

Fast facts

  • The U.S. beekeeping industry is valued at up to $15 million a year. Honeybees are needed to pollinate more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide including almonds, apples, broccoli and carrots.
  • Out of 43 percent of Pennsylvania beekeepers, those affected by colony collapse disorder lost an average of 73 percent of their hives. Those hit owned 8,953 hives — or nearly a quarter of all Pennsylvania hives.
  • The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium had 24 states report cases of colony collapse disorder in February 2007.
  • Missouri’s state insect is the honeybee.
  • The National Agricultural Statistics Service said national honey production in 2006 from producers with five or more colonies totaled 155 million pounds, down 11 percent from 2005.
  • Last month’s meeting of the Missouri State Beekeepers Association reported hive losses of 50 percent.

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edward schweitzer September 11, 2010 | 11:29 a.m.

Went to fill the humming bird feeder,when I took it apart there were about 20+ dead bees inside.It was a cheep feeder i bought at walmart. The holes in the feeder are to big and the bees get inside and cant get out and drown. Dont know if this is causing a reduction in bee population are not. but hundreds of feeders times 20 bees could make an impact. went to a feeder with smaller holes

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