CCD and You

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No, this is not about your religious education; it’s about the plight of the poor honey bee. Anyone who read The Secret Life of Bees was no doubt charmed- and sadly misled- about the lives of these so very clever and important creatures- and the sort of people who make up the backbone of the beekeeping business. The bees are not happily waggling about in their own backyard fields of clover and the bee keepers are not large gently magical black women who know how to heal a heart. I grew up terrified of bees, for no good reason. The terror reached panic proportions the couple of summers I spent sitting out in the yard with my eyes patched: then I could just hear what seemed like such a menacing buzz but not keep my eye on them. I never did get stung. Once I threw myself off the top crossbar of the swingset and drove my barrette into my skull trying to avoid a bee- but I never got stung. Over the years and more and more as I grew to enjoy gardening, I realized they were my friends and not the least bit interested in me unless I upset their course of progress. I learned to gently brush them out of my face and hair and knew that, in the cooler days of early autumn, it was okay to just pick one off a fall raspberry I wanted and move her onto another.

I’m sure most of you know more about honey bees (Apis mellifera) than I do but here’s the one paragraph synopsis for those of you who don’t. (We keep two hives at the farm at the zoo and I have to be able to give a ‘bee chat’ should the occasion arise.).

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A bee hive or colony has a queen, the lone breeding female who spends her reproductive years laying eggs madly and when she can’t do that any more the others sting her to death or drive her out, oh wait, that was just drift from the past few day’s posts and then there are male drones and sterile female workers. Naturally, the female workers do damn near everything. They clean house when they are young and feed larvae in comb cells, then they move on to building cell combs and arranging supplies and finally they get to go out and gather pollen as foragers. At this point in their lives they are also expected to start entertaining the troops with the ‘waggle dance.’

The waggle dance is one of nature’s more amazing feats. It was first described by Aristotle in 330BC and has been the source of considerable scientific curiosity ever since. Although the dance varies from species to species of honey bee, the gist is the same: it is GPS sophisticated beyond your wildest dreams as the dancing bee explains where the best pollen can be located right down to the inch. They take into account distance, height, wind speed, and the relative position of the sun and they communicate it with a sexy spin of the thorax and abdomen- sort of a bee belly dance. Then there is some more theory about the added role of pheromones and so forth; suffice it to say these fascinating insects are a natural wonder. Or, rather, they used to be. Natural, that is.

I was so naive that until recently I didn’t realize that nowadays the vast majority of honey bees spend their time on the road, in the backs of refrigerated trucks, as they are moved from farm to farm and offered for service. I always had an image, left over from my own childhood weekends on the family farm, that farmers all had beehives (I was afraid of those white boxes) and bees took care of business in the general vicinity. My grandfather wasn’t a “beekeeper” per se, but he knew, as did his neighbors, how to keep his bees happy and some honey coming off the hive each year.

In actuality, most industrial, commercialized farmers rent bees to do the job of pollination. They arrive at the appropriate time on large trucks. Honey bees provide over 14 billion dollars worth of service in the way of crop pollination in the United States and some agri-industries are almost 100% dependent on the humble honey bee. For the almond crop, the bee is the only thing; they do all of it. For apples and berries, they provide 90% of pollination. Squash is also between 90 and 100% bee pollinated, same with pears- and while we could do with a few less zucchini, I really need my pears. Not all crops are dependent on honey bees; corn, which cross pollinates, has no need of them. But then, of course, there’s the matter of honey, beeswax and FLOWERS. I repeat, FLOWERS.

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Bees are sensitive little creatures. They are influenced by various life events at the most subtle levels: temperatures, population density, location, hive conditions. Any imbalance results in rises and drops in the pheromones that bees put off to communicate with each other about whether to be calm, reproduce, make honey, look for new digs, supercede or swarm. Swarming behavior, all by itself, is a subject a person could study for a long time. Old fashioned laissez-faire beekeeping depended upon the capture of swarms to replenish beekeeper colonies and early season swarms were especially valued because they are large and strong. Later season swarms are smaller, with older bees. An old English ditty says:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

These days, for the industrialized beekeeper, losing a swarm of bees is akin to a dairy farmer losing all of his calves. You can easily find lots to read about honey bees and their amazing social order and important roll in our economy and it’s all pretty interesting- and that brings me to CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.

For a few years now, beekeepers had been noticing more serious fluctuations (downward) than normal in bee populations and as they first began puzzling over the causes they named it Fall Dwindle Disease. What started as unusually heavy die-off in colonies now manifests as whole colonies just disappearing. With 30% losses last fall, this year saw a decline of 70% in the honey bee population. Let me say that again: SEVENTY PERCENT in more than 24 states. They just weren’t there. Hives emptied out by the hundreds of thousands millions but not as any organized swarms of healthy bees that could be rounded up and hived. Just gone, presumed dead. The remaining dead bees in the colonies showed much higher levels of pathogens. Scientists began to speculate. Research studies right and left, grant money. What could possibly be causing Colony Collapse Disorder?

Here is where I start to shake my head. Call me simple, go ahead, it applies- and yet. We use massive amounts of chemicals, particularly pesticides on field crops. The most notable is a lovely new pesticide that is particularly effective against a tobacco beetle and, Lord knows, in the cycle of waste, politics and lung disease, we need a healthy tobacco crop. Did anyone check with the bees before we started spraying this stuff all over? We load thousands of hives on the backs of trucks and drag the bees from pillar to post: one beekeeper brags that he hits the almond crop in California in February, and five more states in the next 7 months. (There is an interesting article here about this annual bee migration by truck.) Bees that have the most delicate and finely tuned GPS on the planet among man, car or beast- well we snatch up their homes and drive them hinter and yon. You know and I know what happens when you spend too much time on airplanes, trains, public transportation, right? We know what happens at the beginning of each school year when children go back into that bustling, bouncy germ pool on the playground, right?

I’m not switching subjects on you here, but yesterday I was in the children’s zoo, explaining to young campers how clever the North American Black Bear can be. He can learn to learn. He can extrapolate and use information gathered from one event or experience and apply it to another. Now when I ponder this whole bee problem, I’m thinking we are not smarter than your average bear if we are wondering why the honey bees are stressed and flying around in aimless circles, why their immune systems have collapsed, why they are dying and disappearing in droves. If I were more sophisticated in my thinking I too might want to understand the specific ramifications of neonicotinoids, a new class of pesticides, on the honey bee’s sense of direction.

As it is I am wondering, once again, about OUR sense of direction. And where we will be when there are no more honey bees? Finally, I’m wondering why we can’t think as clearly as the black bear about the consequences of our own behavior. Terrorists? Worry about bees for a bit.

(all these pictures are from a little walk about Garfield ark Conservatory where I found two healthy hives of bees. And that reminds me, I didn’t put it in my sidebar, but just drop me a note if you want to borrow one of my photos. Thanks.)

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30 responses to “CCD and You

  1. Enjoyed your post today, Vicki. My husband was a beekeeper and designed an exhibit at the New Orleans Zoo back in the 1980’s that included a glassed off part as an observatory so that visitors could see the bees in action. He really enjoyed the experience.

    Fast forward years later. We have a son deathly allergic to wasp stings! He had a near death experience at Boy Scout camp a couple of years ago.

    I, too, worry about all the troubles of pesticides.

  2. My dad kept 4 hives of bees when I was in grade school, and now my neighbors have 2 hives. They had to get new bees this year, as theirs disappeared last year, queen and all. I worry much more about the bees than about terrorists; the death of bees will have far greater and longer lasting consequences than a terrorist.

  3. Organic beekeepers are not experiencing Colony Collapse Disorder. What shall we make of this?!

    You’re the bees knees and the Queen Bee, too!

  4. Er…bee’s knees! (corbiculae tibiae) Aggravating apostrophe!

  5. We’re concerned about the absence of bees here in the San Joaquin valley.

    Great post and lovely photos. I’m linking to it for Is America Burning. I’ve been writing a little about the ecology lately.

    Ann

  6. I am fascinated by bees. My front yard is full of lavender and wisteria and rosemary and in the spring, my garden is full of bees. My children have learned not to be afraid of them. I love imagining the yummy honey from my flowers and enjoy the constant buzzing. Thanks for adding to my knowledge of these fascinating creatures.

  7. I adore honeybees, and I have been wringing my hands about CCD. Great post, Vicki.

  8. I had no idea that people truck hives around. Why should it surprise me that humans have managed to corrupt and contaminate the natural energies of the honey bee? I’ve read that without these bees, there would be about four years of life left on the planet. Wouldn’t it be the highest irony to have the human world collapse because of our insane intrusion into the life of a little honey bee?

    I was stung twice in the past week by yellow jackets. They have a nest in our garden-hose caddy. I keep grabbing it in the wrong place, and they not-so-gently remind me. The sting is quite fierce and hot, but doesn’t last so long.

  9. I read a different article that also talked about trucking bees around the country. Silly me, I thought the bees that pollinated our crops were the ones that lived in the neighborhood.

    When I was a child, we had honey bees all over the yard, and sometimes bumblebees. Now all I see are carpenter bees. Something’s not right, and it’s hard to ignore the obvious probable causes. Of course, I believe in global warming, too, so obviously my sanity is questionable

  10. I read about a bee scientist who says he has discovered a teeny/weeny bug that is causing the bee dropoff. So not pesticides this time…maybe.

  11. That’s right but the problem, Hoss, is this: it appears the bees are susceptible to Nosema ceranae (the mite/parasite) because of their lowered immune systems. As many as a million out of 2.4 million colonies, gone. On the more hopeful side, irradiation (our friends, the gamma rays) seem to be having a beneficial effect on restoring hives- but Bonnie is absolutely right- this is not as prevalent a problem among organic small farm beekeepers. I say it’s time to get some saddles on those dung beetles!

  12. Great post, Vicki. One of my favorite wedding presents was a quart(!) of honey from the hives kept by friends; it was just about the most lovely flowery honey I’ve ever tasted.

    My first though on reading about CCD was that the bees had just decided they were tired of the treatment they received from us humans, and had gone one strike..l and rightly so. The lavender and ceanothis in our yard attract lots of bumble bees, but I see few honey bees around.

  13. A much better novel than Secret Life of Beeds that includes some cool info about bees than Secret Life of Bees was Lavryle Spencer’s Morning Glory. My absolute favorite book. I reread it at least once a year.

  14. I hope to be getting my hives next spring. Yayyy me!

    You and Mary and the walking! Dear sweet baby Jesus would you two sit your a$$e$ down. You are going to cause me to have a nervous breakdown.

  15. No one has noticed yet, but the bees in the photos from Garfield Park Conservatory are not honey bees. Those disappeared/died out completely this year. These are small social bumblebees, who are being used increasingly as pollinators. As yet they appear to be relatively resistant to the mites/pathogens that are impacting honeybees. So, you know, we can just work our way through one species after another in the march of progress. grrrrr.

  16. Another wow. Thanks for teaching me that. You are entertaining even when teaching me about honeybees.

  17. Once again I’ve lost your email address.

    Thanks for your comment today. After I wrote the “bee” post, another friend sent me this.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/06/070806fa_fact_kolbert

  18. Ann- thanks for the link. I read the whole article- very interesting and well written. I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of the crisis with honey bees and other pollinators. Also- I tried to comment at America’s Burning but I’m too foggy from anesthesia or something to remember my Google sign-in stuff- I’ll track it down tomorrow. It’s amazing how 4 user names and 4 passwords combine, over a couple years, to form 365,217 combinations…

  19. I am continually amazed at how we humans think we can “improve” on hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning. Trucking bees from place to place, I ask you. And we always seem to be surprised when our interference causes a problem, but then we leap to solve the problem with more interference. I am reminded of the hedgerows, and I shake my head.

    So, now that our pesticides have damaged the bees’ immune systems and made them more susceptible to this mite, will we lay off the pesticides? Or create another one to kill of the mites?

  20. I did know about the trucking of bees here and there… what surprised me was when I learned several years ago that honeybees were not native here!

    Nice pics.

  21. As I was looking at your fantastic photos I was wondering about the bees pictured. They didn’t look like any honey bees from my neck of the woods. I’m guessing social bumble bees help with pollination but don’t make honey?
    Thank you for an informative post!

  22. Excellent post about bees! I very much agree about the stress caused by trucking bees around the continent. I’ve read about a few honeybee problems that were spread around, apparently by moving bees — for one, a kind of beetle that causes damage to hives. It only stands to reason that diseases, parasites, etc.. will be spread around if you are moving any creature from one place to another. Nice shots of the bumblebees! Love the new look of your blog. I always had a lot of trouble visiting your old blog as I just had a dial-up and the photos wouldn’t download properly. Your new blog posts download easily, but then, I finally was able to get high-speed internet last week, so everything is so much easier to view!

  23. Vicki!

    I’m glad you are back and I love your new site! I see I have a lot of reading to do here but since my home computer is ill, I don’t have time to read here at work.

    As soon as I’m up and running at home, I’ll get back atcha!

  24. I was only kidding at Mary’s of course. I’m sure your interest in bees is completely intellectual.

  25. Fair enough– but what can I do about it? Any suggestions?

  26. We had almost zero bees on our fruit trees this summer. And guess what? Almost zero fruit, too. We lived by the Niwot Honey guy, and had 2 hives on our property. When they’d overpopulate and swarm, we’d call him to come get the swarm. He talked about the decline 5 years ago; it was mostly due to mites then, I think. Since then (we’ve moved, so lost direct contact with him) he’s been in the paper talking about the pesticide connection to the honey bee die-off. I don’t think the populace gets that it’s not just bees; it’s our FOOD SUPPLY at risk.
    I love watching swarmed bees do their figure 8 dance to cool the hive. Smart little critters.

  27. Great post. Thanks for the info, Vicki.

  28. Call me crazy…and, I may be making more of this than I should…but, I have noticed in recent months that for a couple of days after the dogs have had their monthly Advantage applications, there seems to be an inordinate number of dead bees–both honey and bumble on my back deck. Could bees be attracted to the dog urine and ingesting imidacloprid?

  29. rosabelle mintz

    Very interesting – thanks for sending it to me. Am studying honey bees right now for my 1:1 in FITZ.

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