Flight of the Honeybee

By Susan M. Cashin
Photography by Lucinda Hutson

Beginning in 2006, and appearing again last spring, a mystery worthy of a CSI team hit professional beekeepers in the U.S. Once healthy and well-populated honeybee colonies were discovered devoid of bees, with only the queen and a few worker bees left in each hive. No bodies were found outside the hives, no signs of marauders; the bees were simply missing and the colonies died.

The phenomenon came to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and over 30 percent of the 2.5 million managed honeybee colonies were affected. Some beekeepers’ losses topped 90 percent. With an estimated 15 billion dollar loss at stake, the word spread quickly through the beekeeping industry, the science world and the national media.

 

Why the alarm? We have come to depend almost solely on the introduced European honeybee (Apis mellifera) for the pollination of our crops. Thirty percent of the food found on the average American plate depends directly on pollination by the honeybee. Nearly 100 species of fruits, nuts, vegetables and even forage grasses such as alfalfa—an important food source for livestock—require the services of the honeybee to procreate.

So little is known about CCD and time is quickly running out. Local bee expert and president of the American Beekeeping Federation, Danny Weaver, believes one key component to combating the mysterious disorder is to bolster bee health and reduce hive vulnerability whenever possible. In years prior to CCD, Weaver was troubled by what he suspected were the effects of acaricides (pesticides used on hives to control bee mites). Problems with queen fecundity and reduced bee health in general, as well as toxic build-up in residual wax and hive products were linked to their use. “I really thought a better solution was in genetics,” Weaver says. Putting his background in genetics and biology to good use, Weaver began to implement selective breeding techniques to produce mite-resistance, stronger, healthier queen bees, and within a handful of years stopped needing, and using, acaricides altogether. Without them, Weaver feels his bees are tougher, more resilient and better able to cope with a variety of environmental stressors.

And they need to be. According to Weaver, beekeepers are observing some alarming and extensive colony losses again this year. “Many theories have been offered,” Weaver says, “including some as-yet-unrecognized pathogen, malnutrition, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), varroa mites or some virus vectored by varroa, an environmental toxin or a combination thereof. We just don’t have any leading predictive indicators of CCD. While there have been a few clues, like one known microsporidia and one known virus associated with some operations that suffered CCD, it’s not clear that association is going to hold up over time. It might just represent where the colonies head in the terminal phases of CCD, when they are vulnerable to viral, fungal and microsporidial infections.”

Contemporary commercial bee-keeping may also play a role in CCD. Expert biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk maintains that honeybees are stressed due to lack of proper nutrition and the nature of the pollinating business. Many hives are hauled over long distances, and their natural rhythm and way of life are forced to fit our needs rather than the other way around. Weaver adds that moving these bees into intensive agriculture and farming areas offers very little space for them to obtain what they need from wild forage. “An agriculture crop’s particular pollen may be nutritionally deficient in important amino acids, for instance,” notes Weaver. “These areas can, in some cases, represent a desert landscape for pollinators.” Solutions to these issues are not easy. Maintaining hives for each farm is expensive and time consuming for already strapped farmers. It’s a complex problem ripe for innovative solutions.

In light of the CCD crisis, the need to reduce our dependence on honeybees has moved to the forefront. One step in the right direction is to support, and court, additional pollinators such as native bees. According to Texas native bee specialist Dr. John L. Neff, there are over 260 species of native bees in Travis County, all doing important, yet often-underappreciated work. “We have crops here that are still mainly pollinated by native bees, squashes being one that gets most of the attention,” Neff says. “Almost all of the squash pollination is done by the tiny squash bee [Peponapis pruinosa]. They’re active at dawn, so you don’t see them. During the day, when most people are in their gardens, they’ll see honeybees flying around, but all the work has already been done.”

Yet many of our native bees suffer similar challenges as the honeybee, most noticeably in dwindling habitat diversity and quality of food sources. Classifying and preserving these unique bees and their natural habitat is part of the work of field biologist Kim Bacon. She’s gathered a corps of trained volunteers from the Texas Master Naturalist membership—an organization dedicated to managing and protecting natural resources and areas within Central Texas. Known as Texas Bee Watch, her team closely monitors native bees and records an accurate account of preferred nectar and pollen plants—the goal being to produce a comprehensive list of native bees and their suitable habitats for the urban landscape. The group is in the process of establishing the first native bee demonstration garden at Sunshine Gardens, one of the largest community gardens in Austin.

CCD continues to pose a serious threat to the honeybee population, our food supply and the economy. With no direct cause or cure yet in sight it’s vital that we look toward the few things we can control: improving bee and hive health, developing habitat in mindful and informed ways and maintaining and fostering our native bees and other known pollinators such as butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies, wasps and hummingbirds. All of these important creatures are the true homeland security force for our food sheds. If we lose the battle against CCD, we’ll need all the help from them we can get.

Information and Resources on Bees

B. Weaver Apiaries
16481 CR 319
Navasota, TX 77868
www.beeweaver.com
Phone: 866-547-3376 (Mon.–Thurs., 9–1 Central Time)
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Texas Bee Watch
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John L. Neff Ph.D.
Director and Curator
Central Texas Melittological Institute
7307 Running Rope
Austin, TX 78731
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Gunther Hauk
www.spikenardfarm.org
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Great Web sites for information on creating pollinator habitats:
http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/
www.pollinator.org