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Bee Colonies Collapse by Fall:

How Beekeepers Deal with Colony Collapse Disorder

By Emmet Warren; For the Clock
On September 8, 2016

Bee Colonies Collapse by Fall:

How Beekeepers Deal with Colony Collapse Disorder  

Emmett Warren

For The Clock 

Honey bees are a customary sign of warm weather, along with pollen in the air, pollen covered windows, and itchy eyes (thank you pollen). But the once abundant bee population has been facing dramatic decline since as far back as 2006, when an organization known as Bee Alert Inc. along with Pennsylvania State University began noticing unorthodox fluctuations.

The researchers decided to change the preconceived name “fall dwindle disease” to the more ominous “Colony Collapse Disorder” (or CCD) to indicate that the disease was not contained to a specific season. There have been several proposals on how to combat the problem, from government petitions to tons of dedicated websites. The weirdest method however, comes from

Agricultural economists Randy Rucker and Wally Thurman of PERC (Property and Environment Research Center) deny the CCD reports, calling it “the ongoing media drumbeat” to sell horror stories. “A fact not often mentioned in news reports is that some fraction of bees dies every winter,” they write, “whether CCD is present or not.” They go on to write that many beekeepers are solving population decline by just buying more bees.

Los Angeles beekeeper Susan Rudnicki responded to this solution, calling it “the typical consumerist answer to a problem.” She claims that the bees being sold are ones already infected by the various conditions that fall under CCD, and apparently, that’s quite a lot.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the honeybee population went down by 42 percent in 2015 as the number of summer losses surpassed winter losses for the first time. The USDA says there are many probable causes for the population decline, “from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides.” While the most popular issue with environmentalists is the high amount of pesticides used in pollinated fields, others are quick to disagree.

Rudnicki says the real problems are “a decline in clean forage from toxic chemical exposure, lack of forage diversity, trucking bees all over the country, and narrow in-bred genetics.” In other words, humans. But Plymouth State University biology professor Dr. Brigid O’Donnell has begun studying honeybees closely, and according to her research the largest threat is the Varroa mites.

“A single honeybee can have multiple mites on it at a time, and these parasites are linked to mortality,” said O’Donnell. The mites are the equivalent size of a dinner plate to an adult human, and live off the energy drained from the honeybees they at- tach to. In the process of draining the bee’s energy, a mite will also transmit viruses and other microbes to the bee.

CCD has become a complex case with no singular stemming issue, but an unfortunate series of related causes. Chief Apiary Inspector Katie Gronendyke has been working with eusocial bees for the past 10 years, and confirmed the losses of fall to winter of 2015.

“It was hypothesized that the issue was due to the combination of mild weather conditions, high levels of Varroa mites and associated viruses effecting bee colonies,” Gronendyke said. But the inspector refrained from attributing the losses to colony collapse disorder, instead calling it a “perfect storm of bee issues.” Gronendyke noted that apiary inspectors from the Midwest and New England region also reported similar losses, and that the topic of CCD was last discussed at the Apiary Inspectors of America meeting last December.

This problem appears to only be affecting the North American honeybee (Apis mellifera). According to University of California San Diego researcher James Nieh, the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) has developed a special communication trait to warn bees in their nests of potential threats (such as hornets or even mites) but many experts believe that the more often bees are transported, the risk of all bees being affected grows.

The monetization of honeybees began as a way to create more beekeeping colonies around the country, but in the past ten years it has grown into an industry of repopulating existing hives. The problem with this is that most companies selling the bees are selling disease-free bees and at times shipping them to infected colonies. A company like Gold Star Honeybees out of Maine sells three pounds of bees for $175; about 6,000 to 9,000 bees. Gold Star’s bees are called “mutt bees” as they’re genetics are mixed with bees from Russia, Italy, and Carniola (Slovenia) to create a “four season bee.” This would make them ideal for newcomers, but still pervious to the conditions of existing hives.

While most bees are sold from local farms rather than big industries, the relocation of healthy bees to unheal thy environments is the agricultural equivalent of throwing clean laundry on your bedroom floor. Replenishing an infected hive only accelerates the collapse of the bee colonies.

Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees and author of The Thinking Beekeeper says that her company has a 94 percent success rate in shipping bees, but a lot of it falls on the Post Office shipping methods.

“They aren’t exactly knocking down my door for information,” said Hemenway. As far as customers go, Hemenway says her main client is just starting a hive and looking to harvest their own beeswax and honey, “But I don’t like to discriminate” she said. If a beekeeper is trying to replenish their population, Hemenway likes to find out why the bees are dying and what can be done to save the colony.

Hemenway also added another factor to the decline: American foulbrood (or AFB). The disease is spread when the bacteria Paenibacillus larvae enters a hive. When bees are cleaning their hives they distribute the spores throughout the colony. The spores get into the food and is spread to other hives when “robber bees” take contaminated honey back to their hives. Unfortunately, the bacterium are rapidly becoming resistant to chemical treatments, so the next option for beekeepers is to burn the entire hive to prevent the spread of the spores.

While the fluctuation of honeybee population is a natural occurrence, the combination of all of the current issues has increased the mortality of Western bees in recent years. Farmers like Christy Hemenway are attempting to solve this problem through education and communication with local beekeepers, but the conversations among agriculturalists, government officials, and other beekeepers do not appear to be getting the attention needed to solve the problem. 

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