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7 (Yes, 7) Causes of Colony Collapse Disorder

Research into the honey bee malady has taught us a lot about bees. We might not know exactly what causes colony collapse disorder, but we now understand seven key maladies that may be contributing.


bee on flower

After four years of intense study, research, sampling, and just plain guessing, scientists have made more discoveries in the last year than all the honey bee research in the last 25 years put together. Still, Colony Collapse Disorder is still mostly a mystery. What they have found, though, is helping honey bees and beekeepers. Here's a look:

Poor nutrition.
Honey bees forced to dine on only a single source of pollen have problems. Imagine living for a month on only Twinkies. The first one is great, the second good... the 123rd is disgusting, and, you are slowly starving to death. When researchers looked closely at the diet for our honey bees, they saw the problem and todayn - after four years – there are almost a dozen healthy food choices on the market we can feed our bees (including Megabee and Nozeivit, sold by Dadant; Ultra-Bee, sold by Mann Lake; and Feed Bee, sold by Ellingsons’s Inc.) That's progress. (But look at your grocery store and see how many kinds of dog food there are... wouldn't you think hard working honey bees should have the same choices?).

Old pests revisited.
A common problem with honey bees now is that old pest called Nosema. Simply put, this one-celled parasite damages the stomach of a bee, shortening its lifespan, and the damage allows some of these other pests entry into the bee itself. It's like having a bad cut, then having it get infected. It's a no-win for the bees.

New pests.
Several new viruses (including an insect iridescent virus we nicknamed Ivy) and a couple of diseases were found. By themselves, though, none seem to be causing terrible problems. But now, after four years, we have identified these nasties and know what to look for... and maybe even what they do when combined with other problems.

The worst pest.
But after 25 years we still haven't found a good way to control Varroa mites. Scientists have discovered that these mites are even worse than we thought. When bees are attacked by these mites their immune systems shut down and the bees can't handle other pests and diseases. So the mite does its own damage and then makes it easier for other pests to do even more damage.

Systemic pesticides.
Incredibly small amounts of new pesticides – notably, Bayer's clothianidan, one of its neonicotinoid pesticides – are showing up in honey bee food fed to young bees. These sublethal amounts seem to be much more lethal for young bees than old bees, but it was the old bees that these chemicals were tested on. When only old bees are tested and they seem unaffected the pesticide is claimed to be safe to use. Maybe not.

Fungicides.
Until now considered safe to use around bees, these agrochemicals have been used for years without apparent problems. When honey bees are exposed to new formulations, many with the active ingredient prochloraz, however, it tends to harm the digestive flora bees (and us) use to help digest food. No digestion, and bees starve. That's a problem.

All Together. Now.
By themselves, none o these issues is fatal to honey bees or their young. But more and more evidence is piling up that when bees are exposed to three or four of these at the same time, an individual bee is essentially overwhelmed. But rather than all die at once, they simply live shorter lives. Shorten the life of a typical honey bee by 5 or 6 days (out of a possible 45 or so in the summer), and you destroy the complex society of the colony, and soon, there are no bees to carry on the work.

Colony Collapse Disorder is, it seems, simply a symptom of too much of all of these in some combination. The researchers haven't found the complete answer yet... which virus, disease, chemical and immune system assault is the most lethal, but they are closer to the answer, and more importantly, have better advice for beekeepers on how to avoid these problems.

How Beekeepers Can Help

Make sure bees have a diverse and varied diet. Many floral sources are needed for a healthy, wholesome, season-long diet. And make sure those flowers have not been sprayed with the new insecticides and fungicides that are so detrimental to the young. And feeding bees is a good idea. Use one of the newer substitute diets available from the supply companies and feed whenever there's a food shortage or lack of variety. It will only help.

Make sure you control Varroa mites in your hives, keeping the populations as low as possible all year long. Use bees resistant to mites as much as possible. Trap mites using drone brood and screened bottom boards, and if treatment is necessary, use the safe organic acids or essential oils.

To keep stresses as low as possible in your hives, keep your colonies in full sun, all day long. This reduces mite populations and even small hive beetle infestations a great deal. And, winter your bees with more than enough stored food, with good wind and cold protection to help them through this tough time.

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Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.
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Bee Culture: The magazine of American beekeeping.
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