Honeybee AIDS?

The following excerpts are from Der Spiegel, reposted to Truthout/Environment March 22, 2007.

Since last November, the US has seen a decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.

Scientists call the mysterious phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), and it is fast turning into a national catastrophe of sorts. A number of universities and government agencies have formed a “CCD Working Group” to search for the causes of the calamity, but have so far come up empty-handed. But, like Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, they are already referring to the problem as a potential “AIDS for the bee industry.”

It is particularly worrisome, she said, that the bees’ death is accompanied by a set of symptoms “which does not seem to match anything in the literature.”

In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were infested with fungi–a sign, experts say, that the insects’ immune system may have collapsed.

…bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. “This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them,” says Cox-Foster.

There is evidence that points to agents in genetically-modified corn as a possible cause. Funding to study this has not been forthcoming from the agribusiness industry. Meanwhile, see if you can find a honeybee to show your children. Hurry.

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Albert Einstein

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. All of these reports are just doom-saying from the liberal media. They are blowing a few trivial observations out of proportion. And even if it were true, we could simply invade another country with healthy bees and take their honey if we want.

    pablo (being sarcastic)

  2. It was earlier this spring that Susan over at Lifescapes made the observation that she had not seen any honeybees this year. That started me looking and listening. We sit under an acre of old oak trees here and most springs as they bloom there is a low level buzz in the air from all the bees working the canopy above our heads…I didn’t hear that buzz this year.

    More worrisome is the two apple trees out back. Each year they have an abundance of blooms, set a large quantity of fruit and then they shrivel up in the heat of August (it’s really cruel to try to grow apples here). This year the blooms were there but the bees weren’t. I was out looking just the other day and there are almost no fruit on the trees. Scary…

  3. this – now this truly frightens me. avian flu, meh – global warming, cyclic sun activity? but the einstein quote Fred – so absolutely true – whoa! see you on the other side.
    hugs from PA – connie

  4. My neighbors had 2 hives that one day turned up empty and the bees never returned.

    I hope that research willsoon show why this is happening and what we can do to reverse it. The thought of no bees is horrifying in regards to our foods.

  5. Honeybees are wonderful but they are not native to North America. For pollination on my apple and early blooming plants I prefer to keep several nests of Osmia lignaria, or Orchard Mason bees, which are one of North America’s most prolific pollinators. They may not make honey but they do not sting and they are superb pollinators. And unlike honeybees, they are virtually maintenance free.

  6. Scary on two counts. As if the thought of what a long term collapse of bee populations could mean for the interconnected web of life isn’t bad enough, there’s also the implications of what that GM link could mean if proven. What might the next unpredictable effect be?

  7. Thanks for that link, Bene D, and I’d be willing, should we EVER find out exactly why bees are dying, that there will be more than a single cause–genetically modified crops, environmental stressors reducing fitness, and possibly also the electromagnetic confusion created by all our radiating gadgets. Of course, but the time the answers are in, the honeybee as a species may, for all practical purposes, be vanished from the world’s agricultural spaces.

  8. I wonder how much of our food crops would be affected, and how big the danger really is considering that people lived here before the European honey bee was brought here.

    I’ve also read that most collapsed hives were near modified corn crops that produce their own insecticide that affects bees. Fred, as a scientist, do you have any ideas as to how to best approach a study on this? How could test and control be designed?

  9. I read the recent New York Times article about Colony Collapse Disorder. Honeybees are being trucked across the country and worked harder than before. Apparently some agricultural producers try to restrict bees from foraging around (and hence pollinating) particular seedless crops. C’mon, they’re BEES. They don’t know about property lines!

    Maybe we need local honeybee colonies to go along with the trend toward locally grown food. Maybe we need agricultural practices that let bees be bees.

    I’ve raised a few dozen orchard mason bees (osmia lignaria) for several years, along with gradually replacing our garden with native plants. We use an organic lawn service too. Now lots of native birds flock to our small yard, and we don’t need a pest control service. (I stay away from big commercial garden centers and I don’t buy custom-colored mulch.)

    March and April 2007 were unusually cold, and insectivorous birds have been suffering–not just from lack of bees, but all flying insects. I think bees will emerge when the weather warms up a bit more. Osmia lignaria need daytime highs in the 50s.