Beekeepers and scientist alike


Honeybees have an effect on our lives from the start of the day to the end, yet they have been a mystery to beekeepers and scientist alike. From their believed impossible flight to their method of communication, bees have been studied in almost every aspect. Whenever a mystery is solved or studied extensively though, another question arises that becomes the new focus. This time the mystery is not something that mankind can take their time to find a solution. Honey bee populations have been in a steady decline for the past five decades, yet in recent years, populations have dropped dramatically. Beekeepers around the world through a survey that reported losses that calls for some concern during the winter of 2006 and the spring of 2007(vanEngelsdorp et al. 2007, 2008). In the past, this phenomenon has been called spring/fall dwindle disease, autumn collapse, and disappearing disease. It is believed that the current event of bee disappearance is similar to those of the past, but it is impossible to tell if they are the same. Scientist now terms this occurrence of mass honeybee deaths as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The change in name was due to the fact that the previous names were misleading. The word dwindle implies a steady decline which is not the case and the word disease is often associated with bacteria. The cause of CCD is currently unknown, so the name will likely change when new evidence is found. As of now there is no single cause can be attributed to CCD, but instead it is believed that many factors play a role in the collapse, which ranges from natural diseases to the way the bees are managed. Our high dependence of honeybees to pollinate our crops means that if bees disappear than our diet will also change dramatically. The death of honeybees will also likely result a cascading effect, which will have irreversible damages on ecosystems where natural pollinators have either died off or left.

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Colony collapse disorder has effected honeybee populations across the globe, but it is hard to accurately estimate the losses. The difficulty in determining the losses in the United States alone came from the fact that only fifteen states responded to the survey done in 2007 and two of those states were unable to complete the survey because of bad weather conditions. When asked in the survey, respondents considered their losses to be abnormal when losses were over 40% of the colonies. In this survey the total loss was 31.8% of all reporting beekeepers and an average loss of 37.6% (vanEngelsdorp et al. 2007).

The survey was done again in 2008 with twenty states responding to the survey. Again some states did not participate because they lacked inspection programs, necessary resources, or felt it was bad timing to obtain appropriate information. The survey included 19.4% of the 2.44 million honey-producing colonies in the United States. Of those studied it was found that the average loss was 31.3% with a total loss of 35.8% (vanEngelsdorp et al. 2008). vanEngelsdorp (2008) wrote that if 'these surveys be representative of the losses across all operations, this suggests that between 0.75 and 1.00 million colonies died in the United States over the winter of 2007-2008.?

It was found that respondents reported normal losses of 21.7% compared to that of 15.9% in the 2007 survey. This shows that beekeepers are expecting higher loss rates than in previous years. Losses were also were different in every state and at the same time had no pattern which is seen in the figure 1. Also when responding to the 2008 survey, the top reasons thought to be the cause of the deaths were poor quality queens and starvation, which are both manageable problems.

The affects of colony collapse disorder has a shroud of mystery surrounding it as they are not seen in the other diseases that honeybees face. In a collapsing colony the number of adult worker bee decreases rapidly. The death of adult workers causes the workforce to become mostly comprised of younger adult bees. The strange part about this is that the adult population disappears without any accumulation of dead bodies in or around the hive. The younger workers without the adults are unable to maintain the amount of brood in the colony as there are simply not enough of them. Even stranger still, the adult bees disappear leaving behind their brood (Johnson 2008). This behavior is uncharacteristic as bees are social insects and colony based. When bee's swarm they also suddenly disappear, but in this case the original queen bee is left behind. Also the queen is still healthy and laying eggs and the few workers left behind do not eat even when fed by beekeepers (Ellis 2007). Often if a queen bee is old or diseased the workers will replace the queen, but this is not the case in colonies with CCD.

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Each colony though suffers from different diseases, so it is hard to pinpoint the exact symptoms of CCD (Cox and vanEngelsdorp 2009). A colony of honeybees with colony collapse disorder is often characterized with a complete absence of adult workers and the presence of capped brood and food stores (Ellis 2007). Adult worker bees have disappeared, but there are no dead bodies around or near the hive. The capped off food stores shows that there were still ample amounts of food left. Collapsed colonies are not taken over by neighboring bees. Common pests of honeybees often do not raid or have a delayed raid for colonies that have collapsed (Ellis 2007). The wax moth, which often causes damage to weak or dead colonies, would normally raid a colony that had absent adult workers. The small hive beetle is another pest that normally will attack even healthy hives, but will have delayed attacks on colonies with CCD. Since raids are delayed, it shows that either the colonies either collapse very quickly or the pest knows that something is different in a colony with CCD.

Honeybees are constantly under some kind of stress, whether it be from nature or mankind. Colony collapse disorder is believed to not come from a single source, but according to Cox-Foster and vanEngelsdorp (2009), 'the bees were all sick, but each colony seemed to suffer from a different combination of diseases.' These stresses are also new to the bees in many cases and others have been affecting bees for many generations. The causes of CCD are believed to range from being a disease, parasite, chemical, and bee management itself.

It is evident that wild honeybee's environmental stresses are minimal as bees create their hives using their instincts. These instincts have gone through the test of natural selection, thus they are what should be the 'best' when it comes to finding and making hives. Individual hives must face their own problems (predators, parasites, etc.), so they develop their own natural defenses independent of other colonies. If the colony happens to die, then pests are able to destroy the hive and allow a new hive to become replaced in the same location.

Honeybees are affected by a number of diseases and parasites, most of which do not relate to CCD, but may still be a factor. The American (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB) are the two major bacterial diseases that affect honeybees (Oldroyed 2007). These bacteria only affect brood of up to three days old, so it is unlikely to be a cause as the adult workers disappear in colonies with CCD.

Varroa mites at first was a prime suspect for CCD as they 'were responsible for a 45% drop in the number of managed colonies worldwide between 1987 and 2006 (Cox-Foster and vanEngelsdorp 2009).' The varroa mite infests brood cells and lives on adult bees for movement from one place to other (Oldroyed 2007).Widespread mite infections though are easy to spot for a trained beekeeper. They may still be a factor of CCD since they carry viruses and inhibit the immune responses of honeybees.

There is a great variety of viruses that affect adult bees believed to play a role in CCD. Nesema Apis is a protozoan that infects the gut of adult bees that causes dysentery. .Already many adult bees carry symptomless viral infections (Oldroyed 2007). These viral infections stay symptomless unless the bees are subjected to stresses. These stresses include lack of food, weather conditions, improper habitat, and parasites. Also a likely culprit of CCD is a new and unidentified disease. In 2006 a new nesoma species (Nesema cerana) was found that displayed one of the symptoms of CCD. When N. cerana is found in elevated levels, the honeybees leave their colonies and never return (Ellis 2007).

Also very unnatural to honeybees is the new array of chemicals they are subjected to each day. Ever since the introduction of the varroa parasite, beekeepers must control the mite population chemically. As the mites develop resistances to the pesticides, beekeepers are either increasing doses or trying cocktails of chemicals. These chemicals may also remain in a hive for periods of time as according to Oldroyd (2007), fluvaline and other chemicals can build up and stay in comb wax. A new type of pesticide, neonicotinoids, would enter the pollen and nectar of plants and not just the leaves. This chemical is believed to have a link to CCD as research has shown that it decreases the honeybees' ability to remember how to get back to the hive (Cox-Foster and vanEngelsdorp 2009). Another study though has found that the pesticides may have no effect on the bee's ability to live. Colonies were fed Imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid) in the form of syrup or pollen according to the does found in the field (Oldroyd 2007).

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Honeybees are subjected to stresses they would otherwise not experience when under human care. Beekeepers are basically putting hives into uninsulated an oversized boxes with pre determined cell sizes. The spaced out removable frames and large entrance results in an increase in the air flow inside. This in turns causes the bees to use more energy to maintain the temperature and humidity. Beekeepers often alter the diet of a colony and breed for selected traits. In this environment the honeybees must face stresses they would not in the wild and bees with a 'weak' genetic base survive have an increased chance of surviving. Also the number of variety in flowers has lowered as human's need for things to look 'neat'. Humans plant large areas of one crop without weeds or flowers. A pollinator that only feeds on one type of crop may be lacking in important nutrients if it were to feed on multiple crops. This deficiency in nutrients leads to a weakened natural defense.