Where Have All the Bees Gone?

In less than 10 years, millions have fallen prey to a mysterious phenomenon

A distinct buzzing ills the springtime air, at times frenzied, but mostly an unsettling drone. It’s enough to trigger the human instinct to flee, but not for Ken Outten, who stands in his Felton backyard apiary protected by a white jacket and beekeeper’s veil.

Outten removes a wooden frame from a weather-worn box, which contains one of the 75 beehives stacked behind his home and two other nearby locations, and checks on a colony. Luckily, a honeycomb full of bees emerges with the frame.

But recently, when Outten, president of the Delaware Beekeepers Association (DBA), inspected a hive, it was empty. The 30,000 or so bees, which make up each of his larger hives, had disappeared, joining the ranks of millions of bees around the world that have fallen prey to the same mysterious phenomenon: colony collapse disorder.

Scientists and beekeepers alike are baffled by CCD, which surfaced in 2005. Within the past year, it has contributed to up to a 50 percent loss o commercial beekeepers’ hives, an alarming number, since many fruits and vegetables rely on honeybees for pollination.

Theories abound, but most link to pesticides used in agriculture and residential and commercial landscaping, along with viruses, diseases and pests. And because the bees affected by CCD fly away from their hives and die, studies are difficult.

“What makes CCD so concerning is that bees are an indicator species for the health o an ecosystem,” says Jacque Williamson, horticulture training coordinator at the Delaware Center for Horticulture. “They’re very sensitive to toxins and change. I they’re dying, it’s an indication of greater problems.”

Although honeybees are not native to the U.S. (They were brought to America by the Pilgrims), Americans rely on honeybees for the pollination o more than $20 billion worth o crops annually—that’s 30 percent o the U.S. total. About one mouthful in three in the American diet directly or indirectly comes from honeybee-pollinated food, according to the U.S. Department o Agriculture.

“Our food system is closely tied to these ladies as pollinators,” says Williamson. “Without them, there may be an imminent struggle.”CCD could mean less pollination of crops, which could increase food prices and eventually have a detrimental effect on the environment.

For example, almonds depend entirely on honeybees as pollinators. The California almond industry needs 1.4 million colonies o honeybees—approximately 60 percent o all commercial honeybee colonies in the U. S.—to pollinate almond blossoms.

The almond industry may take a huge hit this year, due to the lack o honeybees for commercial beekeepers to rent out to farmers for crop pollination.

Blueberries, almonds, apples, watermelons, peaches, pears—virtually anything that lowers and turns to fruit—are pollinated by bees and native pollinators, such as ants, beetles, lies, butterlies, moths, wasps, spiders, centipedes and even bats from the Southwest.

All pollinators are eficient for the plant, since plants provide nectar to pollinators, and pollinators fertilize when moving from lower to lower. However, only $3 billion o the U.S. food crop pollination is attributed to native pollinators. “So you can see how dependent we are on commercial honeybee colonies,” says Williamson.

Commercial apiaries are receiving a lot o blame for transmitting bee diseases around the country when they move their bees from region to region to pollinate crops, and are also the ones experiencing the majority o CCD. Being moved from place to place is stressful enough for bees, Williamson says, but they’re also being exposed to millions of tons of pesticides as they move from to another.

“Our food system is closely tied to these ladies as pollinators. Without them, there may be an imminent struggle.” — Jacque Williamson, Delaware Center for Horticulture

In contrast, a local beekeeper’s permanent colony may not be as regularly exposed to pesticides. Outten, for instance, has two acres of strawberries and has only lost about 10 percent of his bees to CCD.

Unlike the six or so commercial beekeepers in Delaware, Outten isn’t interested in renting out his bees because of pesticide exposure.

However, his bees still range one to two miles in any direction to forage for nectar or pollen, so no matter how careful he is about his own use of pesticides, the bees are subject to chemicals used by nearby farmers. The chemicals could easily be gathered along with the pollen, and when bees fly back to the hive to feed the brood, which get theirprotein from pollen brought in by honeybees, the next generation of bees could become contaminated.

“Everybody is susceptible,” Outten says, and this includes any of the DBA’s 200 members plus dozens of additional beekeepers throughout the state.

An increase in new pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, has been linked to the steady rise of bee deaths in the past few years. A systemic pesticide often embedded in seeds, neonicotinoids cause the plant itself to carry the chemical that kills the insect feeding on it.

A multitude of other sprays, insecticides, herbicides, and pesticides are harmful to bees, but there is no proof of one particular chemical doing all of the damage.

“CCD has a much more complicated story, and without a definitive culprit to point the finger at, it’s much more difficult to place the blame on any one chemical,” says Williamson.

She says that leading pesticide companies like Monsanto have a monopoly on both the government and industry, with a revolving door between company executives and government offices. This creates a complication in getting harmful chemicals banned, although campaigns to ban certain pesticides such as DDT have been successful in the past.

“But even if one particular chemical is banned, chemical companies may already have the next, more potent, version ready and waiting,” Williamson says.

Meanwhile, Outten says that although people may not realize it, bees have pests, mites and beetles that infest their hives and they are susceptible to viruses and fungal infections.

“A multitude of things are parasitic to them, and so when people say ‘CCD,’ it’s not just one specific thing,” says Outten.

Mites, for example, transmit viruses to the bees, which, Outten says, “influence their demise,” while beetles infest the honeycomb and wax moths destroy honeycombs in search of the wax used by bees to build the comb. Diseases such as chronic paralysis prohibit bees from using their wings for flight, or they can lose their hair and soon become flightless and die.

With diseases, pests and an increase in harmful pesticides, “there’s more attacking the bees than there used to be,” says Outten. “All parts depend on one another. If one part fails, it has an effect on another part. The honeybees are a big part, and if they fail, it’s going to be a domino effect up the chain, and we’re at the top.”

In order to combat CCD, members of the public can make a variety of environmentally conscious choices. People can plant pollinator friendly plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen, such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, Joe-Pye weed, and other native plants, Williamson says. She recommends using targeted, organic pesticides on private property, rather than broad spectrum pesticides and herbicides. This method is better for the health of the ecosystem, as well as the health of the gardener, their family and even pets, Williamson says.

Additionally, Williamson says, growing your own food, no matter the size of the plot of land, will help. “Growing a couple of your favorites, organically and in your backyard, helps displace your demand on chemically produced produce,” she says.

Outten agrees, saying that if people are conscious of their purchase and use of pesticides, and are educated about pesticides and the importance of honeybees, the downward spiral could be stopped. “Education is the key,” Outten says. “Before I started, I was scared to death of bees, and if there was a bee around, I would kill it, spray it, whatever.”

He suggests that consumers support companies and individuals that are trying to “take care of the environment versus exploit the environment.” If enough people grow their own food and make environmental-friendly purchases, pesticide producers may be forced to make other chemical choices. “If people aren’t buying ‘my’ product because they know my practices are detrimental to the environment, maybe for me to make money, I gotta change my practices,” Outten says.

He suggests that people get a hive or two in their backyards to bring the bee population back up. Urban beekeeping is becoming popular, although Williamson notes that while it helps raise the population, bees are still being exposed to pesticides from lawns, parks and more.

If CCD continues, which Williamson says would not be a surprise, the industrial food system will have to be rethought. It’s a battle, and one that is not in favor of the bees, according to Outten.

“They are fascinating creatures. I think we can learn a lot from them based on how they all work together for the success of the hive,” says Outten. “That’s what we need to do—work together for the success of our environment. Their brains are way smaller than ours, but they probably know something we don’t.”