Plight of the Honeybee

Troubled times

Plight of the Honeybee

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is defined as the unexplained, rapid disapperance of a bee colony's adult population; a decline that is happening right now.

At the Trout Lake Farmers’ Market in East Vancouver, beekeeper Vladimir Cukor is one of the lucky ones. His honeybees in Maple Ridge, BC, haven’t been affected by colony collapse disorder (CCD), the infamous “missing bee” phenomenon that has affected a notable portion of American bee colonies.

CCD is defined as the unexplained, rapid disappearance of a bee colony’s adult population, leaving behind either no bees or only a few, usually a queen and young workers, and sometimes plenty of food stores.

Canadian beekeepers reported bee losses almost double the norm (29 percent) of about 550,000 bee colonies over last winter, and in some places the rate was significantly higher. But it’s not CCD, says provincial apiculturist Paul van Westendorp of the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. “We don’t have enough credible scientific evidence to claim that CCD is here,” he says.

Van Westendorp points out that the number of bees has been steadily declining over the past 20 years. He calls the CCD phenomenon a “huge pile of noise” that the media have helped in blowing out of proportion.

Still, even before big headlines took over, it’s clear that something was happening to our little pollinating packhorses.

A Rose by Any Other Name?

“I could show you front page articles in bee magazines from the 1970s,” says Gus Axen of Arila Apiary, a Trout Lake farmers’ market honey vendor. “CCD is nothing new. But this situation is becoming more serious and bee losses are becoming broader.”

The first recorded year of the bee vanishing act was 1869, and they’ve occurred periodically ever since in numerous countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as during the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and so on.

This isn’t to make light of the current situation. Honeybees pollinate about one out of every three bites of food. Buy your favourite fruit or berry and you can bet that your friendly neighborhood Apis mellifera was probably there ahead of you, pollinating the way to your plate. Honeybees are worth $1 billion annually to Canada’s horticulture industry.

Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for US Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program, told the Associated Press last year that CCD is the biggest general threat to our food supply.

Steady Decline a Modern Problem

At Arila Apiary, the Axen family is concerned about more than politicized monikers. Until recently, their 180 hives on a blueberry farm in Coquitlam, BC, had small but manageable annual bee losses.

“We used to be able to keep close to 100 percent of our colonies,” says Axen of the intensely hands-on process that has helped them avoid the higher losses recorded by bigger operations in the US.

Bee losses of 2 percent at Arila were common until about five or six years ago, after which they slid up to 10 percent, Axen relates. But last year, they hit 35 percent, which, coupled with truly miserable weather that kept the bees in the hive, meant a less than sweet year for honey–and for regular customers.

Customers such as homeopath and frequent alive contributing writer Nicole Duelli for one, who was surprised to discover while shopping that the bulk-size container of honey she usually purchased from Arila wasn’t available this year. She’d been reading about disappearing bees, so Arila’s situation brought the issue home. “I’m certainly going to keep my eyes and ears open for development,” she says.”

Duelli isn’t the only one. “It would be silly not to worry,” says Cukor of Vlad’s Apiary. “There are, for me, a lot of unanswered questions.”

A Disease-Weary Job

A trace of wistfulness is evident in his voice as Cukor discusses the past. “It used to be beautiful to beekeep,” he says. “Forty years ago, you could take bees out for the honey flow. You didn’t have to worry about bacterial diseases, and if one struck your colony, you dealt with it quickly. Today it’s a constant fight to keep your hives alive.”

Axen would concur. He knows what the main problem in their hives has been: nosema, a parasite that attacks bees’ digestive systems. It happens when bees are stressed, leading to compromised immune systems.

Without a doubt, the life of the humble bee has become incredibly complicated. Mites have been a constant parasitic threat that diminished the world’s honeybee population in the 1980s and 1990s.

In what’s called migratory beekeeping, beehives are often transported long distances to pollinate farms, yet another bee stressor. Monoculture agriculture also makes it difficult for bees to receive nutritional diversity. Nutritional quality may also be compromised, because in many areas honeybees are getting hefty side dishes of strong agrochemicals with their chow.

The US Working Group on CCD is considering the effects of numerous factors, including pesticides, bee diseases, bad weather, parasitic mites, fungus, viruses, nutritional deficiencies, a lack of genetic diversity amongst breeding stock, and hive management.

Many environmentalists also wonder about the effect of genetically modified (GM) crops. In the world’s largest, three-year field trial of GM crops in Britain, strong chemicals coupled with genetically modified crops harmed bees, birds, and butterflies and had long-term implications.

Dr. George Carlo, an electromagnetic radiation expert, also feels that radio waves should be studied further as a possible contributor.

No One Clear Cause for CCD

“It’s most likely a combination of factors,” says van Westendorp of the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. “In part a virus, possibly combined with environmental or physical factors,” he says.

The latest research update is a September 2007 study in Science journal reporting that one organism, Israeli acute paralysis virus, was strongly correlated with CCD.

Van Westendorp also says Canadian beekeeping is gentler on bees than big-industry American migratory beekeeping methods where they transport hives long distances.

Between 651,000 and 875,000 of America’s 2.4 million colonies were lost over the 2006/2007 winter. About 25 percent of beekeepers reported CCD in their colonies.

Here in Canada, “Researchers remain in close contact with principal scientists assigned to the US Working Group on CCD,” says a June 2007 Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturist (CAPA) statement. “Members of CAPA have also been actively monitoring the status of bee health across the country and are sharing scientific information.”

Of the future, van Westendorp says, “A lot of us don’t expect it to occur in the same fashion.”

“Am I concerned that we’ll lose the honeybee?” says Axen of Arila Apiary. “No, I’m not. But I’m concerned that this industry can’t stay alive the way it’s set up right now. It’s a lot of work.”

Cukor of Vlad’s Apiary points out that it isn’t just honeybees who are struggling but also other native pollinators such as bumblebees and mason bees. He says more research is needed, after which preventive measures can perhaps be determined.

One good thing that has come from increased attention, Axen says, is that a lot more young people, especially women, have become interested in beekeeping. “You never stop learning in this industry,” he adds. “It’s a life.”

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