While there is a lot of concern surrounding the well-being of our beloved and valuable honey bees, scientists and beekeepers are still learning more about these pollinators every year. One phenomenon that gained fame several years ago and remains a mystery today is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The disorder occurs when a majority of adult worker honey bees suddenly abandon their hive. Successful beekeepers have a responsibility to educate themselves on this and other threats their honey bees face. To help you learn more about CCD and its possible causes, here’s our guide on understanding Colony Collapse Disorder.
DISCOVERING COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER
CCD as we know it gained attention in the winter of 2006 to 2007 when beekeepers began reporting unusually high losses of their hives. Some commercial beekeeping operations lost up to 90 percent of their honey bee hives. While the number of CCD cases declined slowly over the next few years, colony loss is still a subject of concern to this day. CCD in particular remains a concern because scientists are still working to figure out exactly what it is.
WHAT MAKES CCD DIFFERENT?
The key to understanding Colony Collapse Disorder is understanding why it’s different than other causes of hive failures. When beekeepers were reporting significantly high losses of beehives in 2006 and 2007, around 50 percent of those cases displayed unusual symptoms. This meant that experts couldn’t identify the losses as one of the known causes of honey bee death. The most obvious symptom of CCD is the sudden—sometimes overnight—disappearance of a hive’s worker bees. The worker bee population would abandon its queen, the brood, and any pollen or honey stores within the hive. Additionally, beekeepers would find few, if any, dead worker bees in the hive or its surrounding areas. While these disappearances don’t directly destroy a hive, the colony can’t survive without worker bees to protect the queen, raise brood, and make honey.
POTENTIAL CAUSES OF CCD
While honey bee experts still aren’t sure what causes CCD, there are several prevailing theories, most of which have to do with overall honey bee health. One possible cause is the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in gardening and farming practices. These treatments can contaminate the flowers honey bees forage from, causing those bees to carry the chemical back to their hives and food supplies, effectively harming the entire colony. CCD might also stem from varroa mites and other common honey bee pests, parasites, and diseases. Some scientists also believe that stressors and changes to a hive’s environment—including inadequate foraging resources or transportation to perform pollination services—can lead to CCD.
Beekeepers are coping by breeding more bees. They divide the hives in the spring and summer. This forces the bees to create more queens. That's only a stopgap measure.
Some farmers are experimenting with other types of bees. They are cultivating blue orchard bees, bumblebees, and alfalfa leafcutter bees. These bees are more expensive.
The Environmental Protection Agency halted approval of any new use of neonicotinoid pesticides. It prohibits these pesticides when crops are in bloom and bees are present.12 It is also reevaluating the use of all neonicotinoid pesticides by 2022.13
On May 22, 2019, the EPA banned 12 neonicotinoid pesticides.
On January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty-patched bumblebee on its endangered species list.
In January 2018, Maryland's ban on neonicotinoids went into effect. Connecticut followed suit a week later.
In 2018, Costco sent a letter to suppliers encouraging them to phase out the use of neonicotinoids. The retailer's buying power is a big incentive for food growers to comply.
On August 3, 2018, the Trump administration rescinded the ban on neonicotinoid use in wildlife refuges.
Neonicotinoids in Your Food
More than 4 million pounds of neonicotinoids are applied to between 140 million and 200 million acres of cropland annually. They became popular because they are very effective on insects.
But studies show adverse effects on mammals including humans.17 They have a similar effect as nicotine. They affect the nervous system and may have contributed to nervous system disorders. These include increased risk of autism spectrum disorders, memory loss, and harm to developing fetuses.
Neonicotinoids cannot be washed off of food prior to consumption.
They are used in 90% of corn seeds and 50% of soybeans. They have been found in 12 of 19 fruits and vegetables. Neonic insecticides are most prevalent in potatoes, spinach, lettuce, cherries, and cauliflower.18 They are in up to 31% of infant and toddler foods. The pesticides are also in half of North American honey.19
The only way to protect yourself is to buy organic. The only way to protect the bees is to encourage Congress to ban these pesticides.