The Bee Series: Identifying The Problem(s)


You've been convinced of this already, but I'll add in my two cents, after some research and reading: the honey bee is an incredibly important species. I'll even back up this assertion with the typical, yet sobering string of facts and numbers-over one third of the world's food crop relies on pollinators, (Klein et al. 2007; Velthuis and van Doorn 2006) and according to UC Davis extension apiculturist Dr. Eric Mussen, three quarters of the United States' beekeepers report annual colony losses from five to fifteen percent. You're probably aware of similar statistics through articles and features over the last decade, especially in light of something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). However, after glancing at headlines or sensational and dramatic articles about honey bees and pollinators in general, did you delve deeper? Unsurprisingly, CCD and the subsequent questions of the general public ("What's wrong with the bees?" "Why are they disappearing?") are simply catalysts and symptoms of a much more complex system of detrimental factors that are causing honey bee populations and the western beekeeping industry at large to crumble and falter. Here are some factors and elements of concern for the honey bee and wild bee populations' decline and struggle.

Fighting The Parasite

Hardly a new topic of concern or discussion for Western beekeepers and apiculturists, the Varroa destructor is a parasitic mite that first appeared as an introduced species thirty years ago in the United States. The mite, whose dual-pronged tongue penetrates the honey bee's exoskeleton and pillages the colony's brood cells and frames, not only drains the bee's hemolymph, or blood, but also acts as a carrier for other diseases and pathogens. To fight back against the mites, structural treatments for beekeeper's colonies such as vented bottoms and heating methods expel and exterminate percentages of the mites, and marginally successful treatments like fluvalinate have exterminated Varroa populations only to subsequently provide resistance for the organisms against the chemicals themselves. Right now, the production of an RNA-interference technology by Monsanto is in the works to allow the mite to essentially eradicate it, hopefully eliminating the usage of the harmful, unhealthy miticides of the past. However, there's more danger for the world's bee species in the Varroa mites interaction with other organisms and agricultural manipulations. For example, colonies affected by the Varroa mite have been noticeably more effected by the massively spread Nosema Cerenae parasite (Mussen). Additionally, through the USDA's comprehensive "Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health" from Oct. 2012, new information regarding fungicides and pesticides and their ability to excite pathogens like Nosema in bees' guts has lead the scientific world and the bee industry to support new discourses that view colony collapses and losses through a variety of causes and stressors. It's through this synergistic, barraged effect that multiple natural dangers slam honey bee colonies, which often becomes mistaken for CCD.


Similar to pernicious miticides are other chemicals that are much less manageable, much more diffuse and still unknowably harmful-pesticides and fungicides are an extremely contemporary topic in academic, scientific studies and literature and are often perceived as an easy and obvious culprit for the plight of the honey bees and wild bee populations in the United States and abroad. Most recently the focus on neonicotinoids, a widely used and fairly new brand of chemicals, has been heavily studied and often disavowed by beekeepers, environmentalists and apiculturists alike. The chemicals aren't just present in farms and orchards but in our neighbors' backyards, our country's public park fields and in our potted plants. Thus, they are ubiquitous yet invisible. Additionally, and unlike older pesticides, neonicotinoids are invasive and totally present in the crops they infiltrate; they act as "systematics", soaking the seeds of the crops they affect and coursing within every fiber of their yields. This means that any pollen that honey bees forage-up to five miles away from their colonies-could be steeped in these chemicals. And while these pesticides are more locally effective in their application and healthy orientation for humans, they're inversely damaging to bee populations.

Tjeerd Blacquiére et al discovered early last year through their study "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment ", that these new pesticides not only effectively target unwanted pests but also helpful pollinators. Furthermore, the studied illustrated the grim and extremely negative effects of fifteen years of research on neonicotinoids: there was not only a positive correlation between the presence of the chemicals and lethal effects on honey bees, bumble bees and wild bees, but also data that suggested that the chemicals effected the species in more subtle ways. Colonies suffered more loss overwinter and were physically affected, becoming insufficient in their flight paths and unable to properly navigate (Blacquiére et al). These sublethal effects have become topics of great contention and concern and are often connected to the elusive nature of CCD.

The Smoking Gun

It's that very elusiveness that plagues our world's beekeepers and biologists alike and keeps us asking unanswerable questions. Even in a comprehensive study like Blacquiére's, there's unfathomable unpredictability-with chemicals like the neonicotinoids in every nook of the environment, new and less inhabitable weather patterns and smaller natural habitats, there are certainly always a multitude of factors slowly choking transnationally waning bee populations.

"Some combinations can be tolerated by the bees better than others," says Migratory Beekeeper Ryan Lamb. "There are millions of different combinations of variables all with different outcomes. Many of the variables are very hard to detect."

Lamb's stance is entirely feasible, and others have submitted to the seemingly impossible level of diffusion in the hunt for answers; this year, an increased effort has been made to address these difficult, undetectable combinations of chemicals, pests and environmental detriments that have been ailing bee populations for years. Matthias Becher et al, in their literature review titled "Towards a systems approach for understanding honeybee decline: a stocktaking and synthesis of existing models", attempt to compile different assessment models for lost colony recovery and create a set of criteria for specific beekeeping difficulties. As more and more data surrounding the detriments of pesticides and environmental stressors become exposed, efforts like Becher et al's can be assembled to synthesize the disparate factors that constitute bee population loss. With this exposure comes more widespread awareness of the dangers of these detriments and new sets of tools for beekeepers and environmentally aware individuals around the world.

Without being directly involved in the world of beekeeping, we're all reliant on the honey bee species. For me, becoming aware of the beauty in the foliage and vegetation surrounding me is an important step, and knowing the invisible dangers that cover those beauties is imperative. While there is a plethora of ways in which we can attempt to support the prosperity of honey bees and wild bees, the most important step is the first one: become aware, informed, and enlightened.

-Jonathan Finkelstein

Next: The Bee Series: America's Favorite Nut