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Posts Tagged ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’

A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, Schacker, M., The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2008.

Having suffered the loss of four colonies this winter with some indications of winter starving but a lot of unanswered questions, I have turned my attention toward understanding Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Heat Map Showing Gene Expression

Last year, the breakthrough discovery [article] was the ribosomal RNA fragments in bees’ stomachs suffering from CCD symptoms: “If your ribosome is compromised, then you can’t respond to pesticides, you can’t respond to fungal infections or bacteria or inadequate nutrition because the ribosome is central to the survival of any organism. You need proteins to survive,” May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois, said to the Illinois News Bureau.  Although two new viruses, IAPV and Nosema Ceranae, are present in American bees, neither has been isolated as a cause, and this study found no unusual expression of DNA responsible for immune response.  The main thrust of this argument and research is that the abundance of pathogens affecting honey bees is resulting in RNA degradation that results in CCD symptoms.

In his book, A Spring Without Bees, Michael Schacker goes through the list of common ailments afflicting honeybees and the implausibility of their implication in CCD, and then asks the obvious question: has the world seen CCD-like symptoms before?  Not surprisingly, the answer is yes, and for more than a decade French beekeepers have been fighting the Bayer Corporation to remove a new type of systemic pesticide, the neonicotonids, from agricultural use.  Through painting the pesticide on the seeds of agricultural crops, or soaking the soil with it, these pesticides enter every part of the plant, including the nectar and pollen, causing disorientation and eventual death to insects feeding on it.

French Beekeepers Protest Use of Systemic Pesticides

Through his analysis of the French situation beginning in 1996, he illustrates that the Bayer Corp’s research indicated that the new products were safe for bees, but they only did research down to 50 PPB (parts per billion).  As the French Ministry of Agriculture was forced to acquiesce to the demands of beekeepers to halt the use of these pesticides and begin a thorough study, they found that these pesticides can exhibit detrimental influences to a hive at 6 PPB, and even show indications at 3 PPB.  Bayer’s studies also did not focus on the concentration of pesticides in the soil due to repeated seasonal use, which takes several years and adequate rainfall to disintegrate.

2007 States Affected by CCD

Then he asks the question I had been asking.  Has anyone done a study correlating areas where CCD is present and any new use of pesticides in America?  Looking at the 2007 map of states with reported cases of CCD, it didn’t make sense that every state wasn’t affected by CCD.  Schacker’s research shows correlations between Environmental Protection Agency permissions to use systemic pesticides through an emergency use act and the presence of CCD in those states affected.

While the first half of this book illuminates the horrors of our modern agricultural world–millions of tons of pesticide use, pesticide companies heavily lobbying our representatives, and research grants to universities being largely funded by pesticide companies–it ends on several brilliant notes: bring bees into your backyard, keep bees organically, plant a bee garden, and call for government regulation of these pesticides.

Michael Schacker on Saving the Bees:

His blog, Plan Bee Central, offers lots of current reports of CCD and pesticide use in other countries.

I highly recommend this book for it offers the only informative and reasonable analysis of CCD I have found.  I have come to feel that here in Seattle, CCD is not a direct threat, as only one of our colonies failed and the symptoms can be attributed to starvation.  At Smoke Farm, in rural, agricultural Arlington, where we lost all three colonies, I’m still concerned.  We don’t know what types of farms are across the river and what types of pesticides they use.  The main threat of CCD is not that bees will necessarily go extinct (although many important pollinators have gone extinct because of habitat loss and pesticide use), but that our agricultural system could collapse on a national scale if CCD persists.  In a 2008 report, Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, wrote for thedailygreen that CCD is only effecting 5% of America’s beekeepers.  About 1,000 of today’s beekeepers manage about 95% of all the colonies present in the US.  These are the beekeepers providing pollination services for almonds, blueberries, and citrus, keeping the agricultural system buzzing, and whose livelihoods are threatened with the loss of their livestock.  And while the government, universities, and media hesitate to point the finger at pesticides, master beekeepers, like Richard Blohm, seem to know from experience that pesticides are to blame, “Yeah, my hives survived very well.  I had normal losses.  Each winter, we expect to lose approximately 10 percent under normal circumstances. And my hives – I keep my hives in – it’s more of a non-agricultural area. So it’s more residential, suburban area, and they’re not exposed to as many pesticides.” [NPR Science Friday with Ira Flatow] Thanks to a recent study showing remarkable levels of pesticides in bee’s wax and stored pollen, and Schacker’s work, pesticide use may finally bee the topic of 2010.

Additional Reviews: http://ecolibris.blogspot.com/2008/08/spring-without-bees-by-michael-schacker.html, http://planbeecentral.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/one-of-the-first-reviews-of-a-spring-without-bees/

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The Good:

Having missed my chance to open Michael and Kelle’s hives in Maple Leaf, as well as Matt and Monica’s hives in the Central District, back in February when we had several amazingly flyable days, I waited for the weather to turn and was well rewarded.  Last Monday was incredible with temperatures over the 60 degree mark and the sun out in full force.

Big Leaf Maples are a major, April nectar flow in the Pacific Northwest

Three of the four colonies survived the winter in Seattle, two Italians and one Carniolan.  The Carniolans had consumed just about all of the honey they earned for the winter, and the nest was up into the top of the second box and about the size of a large football.  This was a really great opportunity to see just how much honey a colony needs to survive an average winter with several cold snaps, as well as the opportunity to learn what to expect in terms of colony size in mid-March from the Carniolan race.  They winter in a smaller cluster than the Italians, and although kinda small, the colony showed promise of being up and running at full steam by mid to late April.

The Bad:

Oddly, the strongest hive last year, the Italians at Matt and Monica’s house, perished.  There were a lot of dead bees beneath the hive and a lot of honey was left–at least 70 pounds.  They were also looking vibrant and mildly ornery when we lifted them up to put a new hive stand beneath them in late January.  This colony was huge in the fall… from their beginning as a small package in April they developed into two boxes full of bees and brood and almost two boxes of honey in September.  This was the only colony that offered up any honey to harvest–a beautiful 20 lbs worth in July.  There were some honey placement issues that could have been better on my part in the fall, but there was no sizable cluster of dead bees, there was no queen to be found, and some of the bees showed signs of Dwarfism, which I have learned means they were malnourished in their larval stage.  At some point this colony either became too weak to feed the young larvae or they became too hungry having clustered away from the honey.  Although I may have made some mistakes wintering this colony, this was a surprising loss and may be a result of Colony Collapse Disorder.

With reports arriving on the status of honeybees in the U.S. and the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) this year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the loss and our ignorance.  Almond pollinators in California are reporting up to 50% losses, and nationwide predictions are that this year could be worse than the 32%, 36%, and 29% losses of the previous three years.  And no one seems to understand the problem yet either.  One recent study from August 2009 found unusually high levels of ribosomal RNA strands in the bees’ stomachs, indicating  “that honey bees in colonies diagnosed with CCD had reduced ability to synthesize new proteins.”  Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, fungus, mites, viruses, pesticides and stress are still suspects, though as contributing to a cocktail of conditions resulting in collapse.

Updates on CCD:  Washington Post, Miami Herald, Capital Press, Discovery News, Mother Nature Network, The Why Files, and Desdemona Despair.  You can also read my Book Review for A World Without Bees and check out their website.

Recent report and study on pesticides in Honeybee hives as a contributing factor: Plos One (peer reviewed science), The Barefoot Beekeeper

Where government funding for CCD research is going: The Daily Green

RNA study: USDA and recent blogs on CCD by experts in the NY Times: NY Times

and The Beautiful:

Seattle bees busy in mid-March

Opening three hives in mid-March on a beautiful day is definitely a gift.  The Italians at Michael and Kelle’s house had enough bees to fill nearly two boxes, and the brood nest was approaching the box-and-a-half size.  There was so much brood!  Some of the brood was going to emerge soon, there were frames of newly laid eggs, and everything just looked like spring!  All over the city the flowers are blooming and I’m certain there is enough nectar and pollen available that these colonies just might grow quickly enough to make some Maple honey this April.

In all of the hives I lowered the brood boxes to the bottom levels, gave them a little extra honey from the colonies that had perished, and put honey supers on all of them except the Italians that swarmed last year.  I felt they needed a week more to develop before giving them some extra storage space.  In hindsight, I thought it might be a little too early to manipulate the frames with our evenings still getting cold, but it’s a lesson I’ll definitely learn based on observations in the coming weeks.  I feel like there is so much I don’t know about tending bees… I haven’t had the opportunity in the past to experience bustling hives so early in the year… but observing and interacting with all of this sweet life, the lingering scent of honey, wax, and propolis on my hands, the promise of a population explosion to go out and pollinate the world–it’s the ultimate cure for colony loss.

PS I posted a video from Michael and Kelle’s hives’ perspective on the Audio/Visual page.

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As we could see all around us, dark bees, probably of the Carniolan race, were coming and going.  Some were entering the middle hive, with the Carniolans, and others were going into the third hive, the other Italians.  When we checked the Carniolans in early October, we could see the entire top box filled with capped honey, and so we didn’t look too deep.  “They would be fine,” we thought.  “So much honey they gotta make it through the winter.”  From our initial glance, it seemed like the other Italian hive had died, and the Carniolans coming and going were robbing the other Italian hive of its left over honey.

All that was lost.

“That’s okay,” I thought.  “At least the Carniolans made it.”

Terrance and I cracked the Carniolans open.  A couple of living bees, but primarily just a top box filled with honey.

We went down a level.  Half-filled frames of honey abounded, but no nest or cluster of bees, just the odd stragglers.

At the bottom, there was nothing.  No dead bees, no dead cluster, no dead anything.  Literally an empty hive filled with honey.  There is absolutely nothing to report.  130 lbs of honey and no bees.  Those few stragglers were from a neighbor’s hive, presumably, come to rob this empty hive.

In the other Italian hive, a similar situation appeared, just not so much honey left-over.  There were a lot of dead bees on the screen at the bottom, but upon closer examination they must have been from the summer, or even from the bottom of the package when we introduced them because they were nearly decomposed.  A mouse had moved in beneath the carcasses under the bottom board.  I did find a few Varroa mites on the bottom board, but no signs of infestation.  There was no dead cluster of bees, no sign of supersedure, just an empty hive with some honey.  Ironically, these bees were observed in the top box when I fed them in January, so some time in the last month they just disappeared.

Is this CCD, aka Colony Collapse Disorder?  I’m not sure.  Could we have done things differently last fall?  Yes.  The two Italian colonies were borderline strong enough to survive the winter, and they should have been combined.  Did that kill them?  Probably not.  Is it possible that we killed the queens when we were performing maintenance, and the colonies failed because of that?  The occasional accident with a queen is not unprecedented, and maybe that happened in the first hive we opened, but the likelihood of all three perishing that way is highly unusual.  For these two hives, I don’t know what to call the phenomenon, but I had the same first thought as the guy who first reported CCD, “All the bees are gone.”

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Saturday, February 20th was a totally flyable day, and Terrance and I opened each of the hives for a late winter, early spring inspection at Smoke Farm.

A living bee's proboscis.

I knew from my mid-January feeding up there that one of the hives had died.  Between two of the boxes, a few bees’ heads were popping through, their proboscis hanging out.  When you see their tongues hanging out like that, it’s usually an indication of starvation, and it was horrifying to see them like that.   I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks what had happened.  It hit me hard, but by this Saturday, I was through the grief and ready to see what had happened inside the hive.  I was also extremely excited to see how the Carniolans were doing; they had so much honey going into the fall, I anticipated a bustling, beautiful hive.

We began opening the hive I knew had died, the Italians on the left from the front of the bee-house.  Usually in a starved hive, one will find the cluster of bees around the queen and many bees head first in empty cells of honey.  It’s a very clear portrait of their last moment of life.  As we opened the hive, we observed the top frames all half-filled with capped honey, about 40 lbs worth.  So I thought, “Maybe they clustered away from their stores during a cold snap and couldn’t make it to the honey.”  That will happen from time to time.  The bees will cluster up to keep warm but be just a little too far away from the bulk of their stores to survive the cold snap.  There were also queen-like cells on one of the frames with bees in them.

Oddly, there were not many bees at all.  We found one cluster of 20 bees, but there was no queen present in it.  Many frames were completely absent of bees, and others had only 1-3 on them.  The brood box below was empty.  At the bottom of the box in the screened area there were about 250 dead bees.  That might sound like a lot, but this hive had 20-30,000 bees going into the fall.  I collected the dead and inspected them later.  No queen was present and some of the bees were unusually small, like they had either been raised in a small cell or perhaps had gotten chilled toward the end of their development.  There were no mites present on the bottom board or that I could find when I shook the bees out on white paper.   Nothing really made any sense to me.

The queenless cluster of the Italian hive.

In hindsight, I now know that this colony was a little too small going into the winter because they need a mass of bees to maintain heat, but still, many thousands of bees disappeared between October and February.  Did the living bees manage to drag them out when the weather got warm?  They had eaten very little honey, so does that mean they perished in late autumn?  Did the queen die unexpectedly and the bees try to raise a new one?  Did the colony leave as a new wave of brood was about to hatch?  Were these smaller bees the result of chilled brood that managed to survive, or is there a disease at work? Was this a case of Colony Collapse Disorder that left young brood ready to emerge, only to find their sisters gone?  There is just so much I don’t know.

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A World Without Bees, Benjamin, A. and McCallum, B., Pegasus Books, New York, NY, 2009

Even when I have little money, a new hardback book on bees is tempting, especially when it has as extensive a bibliography as A World Without Bees.  To some extent, I had been waiting for a book like this to be written.  A lot of people ask me if the bees are in danger and I say, “Yeah, that’s what I keep hearing,” but to what extent I did not know.  This book elucidated the extent of the horror quite well.

The modularity of pollination networks

But first, let’s cite some examples from the book of how incredible bees are: 1.2 million hives are driven into California each spring to pollinate almonds.  Each acre of orchard is given two hives or about 80,000 bees.  Just estimating, the bees of each hive will have to make an average of 45,000 trips a day just to acquire enough pollen and nectar to raise its young and survive the winter.  30 years ago, an acre of orchard would produce 500 lbs of almonds.  Today, with bees brought in for pollination service, that same acre will produce 3000 lbs of almonds.

So consider now how dependent we are on bees, not just individually but on the scale of our culture and civilization, when around 70% of the food we eat is dependent upon insect pollination, and for our needs, honeybees do it best.  So now consider this statistic: during 2007 and 2008, over one third of all honeybees disappeared.  800,000 losses in 2007, and a million in 2008, all due to what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD, for short.

Varroa Mites

What is causing it?  No one knows.  Let me repeat that; no one knows.  Culprits?  1) The stress of agri-industrial beekeeping, in which bees are shipped from Maine to Florida to California to Montana on the backs of trucks.  Honeybee pests and diseases have been known to spread more rapidly because of this practice, and many if not all migratory beekeepers supplement their diet with sugar-water and substitute pollen to increase colony sizes in late winter.  2) A narrowing gene pool, in which the new colonies created by bee-breeders are drawing from limited stock and diversity to respond to new stresses in the environment.

USDA: Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US

3) Varroa Mites, new strains of familiar viruses, fungi, beetles, and potentially viruses mutating to cooperate with mites.  And 4) Pesticides, GMOs, and monoculture.  A bee slurps nectar from a flower whose DNA has a fragment of shellfish DNA in it… is that okay?

Unfortunately, all research to date has been inconclusive because scientists can not isolate which problem for bees is causing the major problem for bees.  It’s either a perfect storm of all conditions, or something has changed.  If you don’t read this book, please start paying attention.  This is a really big deal.

Additional reviews:

http://thealternativeview.org/AWorldWithoutBees.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/20/scienceandnature

And a commercial beekeepers letter to bee journals:

http://www.biotech-info.net/bee_j_editorial.html

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