Monday, July 6, 2009

Colony Collapse Disorder: Meet a beekeeper! Part 3

Continuing our interview with Michele Bennett Decoteau, of Blue Hive Journals, today's topic is Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a serious condition that is severely impacting honeybees in the United States. (If you're just joining us, here's part 1 and part 2 of the interview.)

I read recently that nearly one-third of the honeybee population died last year due to CCD. What is Colony Collapse Disorder and how can we help save the honeybees?

CCD is a scary new thing beekeepers are facing. What happens is that beekeeper will open a hive and find healthy larvae and honey but essentially no adult bees. Under typical disease circumstances [only a few adult bees leave and don't return and] there is a decline in bees that is reflected in the larvae and honey. Most diseases show their influence in the larvae [not the adult bees]. The question is where the [adult] bees are and why are they not returning to their hive.

I don’t think a single cause will be found. Some suspects are pesticides, pollution, transporting bees, and disease.

Some pesticides disrupt a bee’s ability to navigate home. One potential culprit is Imidacloprid. When bees get a good dose of this pesticide they act drunk – they cannot fly well, they don’t orient to home, and they get lost easily. This pesticide is banned in other countries but can be purchased [commercially] here in the US. (Mama Joules' sidenote: "Imidacloprid and nicotine have similar activity in the nervous system," according to a 2001 "Insecticide Factsheet" in the Journal of Pesticide Reform.)

Bees are also transported around the country to pollinate large crops. First bees pollinate almonds in California, then they go to Texas to pollinate squash, then maybe over to Georgia for peaches and head up to Maine for blueberries. Bees are eating one single crop at a time and are fed sugar water in transit. This doesn’t sound like a good life for a bee to me. For one thing, the queen and larvae get chilled during transport. I think that all this moving around and single crop feeding is a challenge to the bee’s immune system.

Pollution may affect bees in an unexpected way. Bees use pheromones to communicate within the hive and even to some extent between hives. Pollution can disrupt a bee’s ability to smell and [the bee] may get lost [due to] high levels of pollution.

Disease and bugs that bite bees are an ever increasing issue. Many of these pests come from other countries and were introduced into US bee populations from unmonitored imports of bees. Today, beekeepers use a number of pesticides to deal with these bee-pests.

I am a hobbyist beekeeper and generally we are not affected by CCD. Since we don't know what the cause of CCD is, it is unclear why hobby beekeepers don't see it often. Perhaps it is because we don't transport our hives and feed them a single nectar source or stress them other ways. Stress decreases every being's immune system and a weakened immune system might allow some disease to attack bees. Until we know more about what CCD is, we won't know for sure.

Nonetheless, even hobbyists do keep a close watch on diseases and pests in the hive. Essentially we are just big worker bees taking care of the colony!
Michele's top five things we can do to help the honeybees:
1. Become a beekeeper
2. Buy local honey – Check out farmer’s markets and beekeeper’s organizations
3. Plant native plants for pollinators – Check with your local nursery for ideas
4. Grow organically – Stop using chemical pesticides in your flower and veggie garden
5. Buy organic – The fewer pesticides in use in the environment, the better for bees!

Thanks so much for the insight and advice, Michele! Join us next time as we conclude our interview by learning how to start beekeeping (read the next part of this interview here). Be sure to check out Michele's blog, Blue Hive Journals for more ideas and tips about keeping bees.

Michele says, "Take time to try different honey. It’s OK to have more than one jar of honey! Every honey tastes different. I love lavender honey made from lavender nectar."

If you liked this post, you might like:

Meet a beekeeper!

Meet a beekeeper! Part 2: The intelligence of bees

Meet a beekeeper! Part 4: Learning to keep bees

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Michele Bennett Decoteau (top photo); Ryan Wick (bottom photo, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)


[10/2/09: Updated to include links to the rest of the interview. Deleted phrase "native honeybees" because it is factually inaccurate. Honeybees were imported to the United States.]


CricketB said...

How do they determine what type of flower was used for the honey? Is that stuff from the bees that are trucked around (and therefore something our dollars should vote against), or is there a better way?

Also, I suspect driving bees around means, just as the local nectar comes into season, a bunch of vagrant bees come and eat it all, leaving the locals with nothing.

Michele said...

Thanks for thinking so much about the bees!

Bees are very focused. Once a bee starts on a certian type of flower, she sticks with it and asks all her sisters to join her. So when you get blueberry or cranberry or my favorite, lavendar honey, the bees primarily went to that type of flower. Beekeepers will put on honey supers - boxes the bees use to store honey - just before the flower of choice comes in to bloom. The super is taken off when the bloom is over.

People have been moving bees around for nearly a century - first by train and now by truck. I doubt it will stop anytime soon unless we stop large factory orchards and farms. You can vote with your dollars to purchase organic fruits and veggies from small family farms - and get your honey there too. Many smaller farmers have their own hives.

I suspect that in most areas where there are large factory farms, the native bees and local honeybees still find plenty of nectar because they eat from a large variety of flowers not just the large crop.

Keep the questions coming! I will do my best to answer them.

Cecilia said...

I am a new bee keeper in training; this year will be my first hive. I'm really interested in your information on pollution masking the scent of flowers. A veteran bee keeper I know lost 20 hives this past year. Recently a lot of information has come out about Outdoor wood furnaces in our area. They are large water jacketed burners that heat homes. An article shared that the DEP and EPA in our New England Region reported a study where these machines created emissions equal to 53 diesel trucks idling in people’s yards. It also talked about chemicals and creosote they create due to incomplete combustion and that benzene is also created and because of its chemical formation is heavy and stays close to the ground rather than getting carried away. The bee keeper I spoke of lives across the street from one of these. In the paper there was another article referencing neighbors having severe side effects, asthma, heart pounding, their kids on nebulizers, etc. It is a big, hidden, pollution problem that the EPA and many states have not set standards for and they are populating by the thousands in our environment. I wonder if there is a link and if any of the other hive collapses where near one of these? I am looking all around because we discussed CCD tonight and would love to read your thoughts. Keep up the great work , this is so important.

CricketB said...


I wonder if there's more than just wood going into those furnaces?

30% of pollutants (ignoring CO2) in some areas comes from backyard garbage burning.