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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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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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