Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, In Context

The U.N. has released a brief report (pdf) on the global state of pollinators. As with most such reports, it only contains substantive information about one species, the western honey bee, as data do not exist for the vast majority of other pollinators.

The report contained this figure, which I have modified to indicate the arrival of Colony Collapse Disorder:

For all the hoopla over CCD, the reality is that non-African Apis mellifera on the North American continent has been declining for decades, and that CCD, whatever it may be, is just the latest in a string of challenges. Data are sketchy for other pollinators, but there are reasons to believe the decline is more general.

If I may be permitted to speculate, I suspect the gradual decline reflects gradual changes in landscape use and commerce since the 1950s. The rise of large-scale agriculture and urban sprawl, together with a decrease in the small farms inclined to beekeeping, has decimated the diversified landscape that supported earlier populations. Concurrently, globalization brought new bee pests to our shores- look at the effect of Asian Varroa mites in the 1980s!- and has increased the traffic of pests around the continent.

If we wish to return the domestic honey bee to its historically large population sizes, we’d do well to focus on larger landscape management issues rather than zeroing in on particular diseases or afflictions. Otherwise, we risk not seeing the forest for the bees.

25 thoughts on “Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, In Context”

  1. Incredible. The graph makes the population loss from the mid-2000s seem negligible, compared to the scare drummed up by every media source I got my information from. Obviously, though, honeybees are still in serious decline if a more gradual one than I was led to believe, and could be wiped out in 50 years or so if the trend from the last 50 years continues. I wonder if I could take up beekeeping…

  2. Apropos your cogent discussion of the role of land-use changes in bee population declines, I’d like to note the efforts of the Xerces Society to coordinate a small lobbying campaign. The intent is to prevent cuts to the meager funding provided to farmers and ranchers to help them improve habitat for native and managed pollinators and other wildlife. The Society has asked folks to call their senators today. It’s a bit late in the day, but I encourage everyone to participate. Here’s a little more information as I received it from the Society:

    Participate in a nationwide effort by calling your U.S. Senators this Wednesday – Thursday (March 9 – 10), and tell them you oppose cuts to funding for farm bill conservation programs that help ranchers and farmers improve habitat for native and managed pollinators and other wildlife.

    Just make two calls to the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121, and ask for each of your Senators.

    You can either make your points to the staffer who answers the phone or ask to be put through to the legislative assistant who handles agriculture.

    Suggested talking points:
    • Hi, my name is XXX; and I live in YYY.
    • I am calling to urge the Senator to oppose cuts in this year’s budget to funding for farm bill conservation programs that help farmers and ranchers improve habitat for native and managed pollinators and other wildlife.
    • Bees and other pollinators that help produce much of the food we eat and healthy wildlife ecosystems are in trouble, and scientists point to habitat loss as a major cause
    • The 2008 Farm Bill for the first time included provisions to help increase habitat for native pollinators and honey bees through USDA’s conservation programs
    • I am particularly concerned because the House recently passed a budget containing significant funding cuts in many of these conservation programs.
    Add any other points to express your personal views.

    If you take time to voice your support for pollinator conservation funding, you will be part of a coordinated grassroots effort by conservation, wildlife and environmental organizations in the Farm Bill Conservation Coalition. The shared objective is for Senate offices to hear overwhelming support (like a buzzing swarm of bees!) on March 9-10 from constituents for conservation funding.

    NO, you don’t need to be an expert. You just need to care enough to pick up the phone!

    YES, your calls can make a difference. Each Senator’s staff tracks calls on key issues like conservation funding, and constituent views are a factor in Senators’ votes.

    With serious budget deficit pressures, Congress is looking for places to cut. Through your grassroots actions, we can try to at least minimize cuts to conservation. If Senators don’t hear from constituents, conservation funding could be a serious casualty.

    1. Has anyone demonstrated that this particular Federal spending program actually is worth the funds expended ? As a general rule, I am skeptical, although there actually are a very few exceptions. I am sure that the natural world will survive without this particular expenditure. There are all kinds of wondrous things we can do, but somebody has to actually pay for them. In this case, its the taxpayers.

      No matter. This year, the Feds will spend a non-trivial $1,400,000,000,000 more than they collect in taxes. I think it is past time to spend less on not only the frivolous, but also things that matter, but are not critical. Living within your means is something we all have to do, even our government.

  3. Just scanning it, I found a glaring typo on page 8, where they called Aethina tumida a species of Acari (they did call it a beetle later in the paragraph). I feel like they wanted to talk about tracheal mites or something, but I wonder why that huge error was not caught.

  4. Pollinator decline seems to be occurring widely (http://bit.ly/h9KV0J) and is certainly not restricted to the Honey Bee even though they get by far the most significant headlines.

    For example, studies in Europe have shown declines in other bee species and hoverflies (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/313/5785/351) and the authors of this would likely agree with your comments on land use and habitat as they state in the abstract “these findings strongly suggest a causal connection between local extinctions of functionally linked plant and pollinator species.”

    Nice to see a discussion on honey bees and CCD that doesn’t automatically point the finger at neonicotinoids – a pleasant change!

  5. Without looking it up, is the graph more indicative of the number of beekeepers in the US over time? The number of bee colonies may then just follow this trend. Or is this outweighed by the increased number of colonies modern keepers own (or did before declines)?

  6. I’m not a scientist but have been paying attention to the bee situation. My home is surrounded by woods. While we have not seen any wild hives like we did 30 years ago. For a year we saw absolutely no honeybees in our yard (I have a large flower garden.) Last year, 2011 I did see some honeybees. I notice, though a large increase in the more solitary species such as bumble bees, one of the US’s native bees.

  7. Not only is it bad in the way Ben mentions, but the fed cost share programs that help support pollinator habitat restoration are now trying to relax their guidelines for the use of “ecoregional” plant materials in such restorations. It seems the USDA folks in charge want to relax the strict standard of, say Missouri, origin and, say Missouri, grown for seed purchasing for these projects. It seems to me there is a bit of science out there indicating some rather precise, localized coadaptation of pollinators and their plants, but can any readers of this blog point me to more???

  8. A bit off topic but Dr. Brad Vinsson of Texas A and M gave an interesting talk on solitary bees in Costa Rica at the recent Southwestern Branch meeting of the Entomological Soceity of America (this week in Amarillo, TX). He emphasized in the talk and when speaking to me personally, that the land use issues are causing problems for native bees. This is really scary because honey bees are not loyal pollinators. Instead, the honey bees are good at pollinating monocultures, which is how we run our agri-crops. Native plants depend on native bees and other animals…but of course we don’t document these others — big agri-business doen’t make money off of them.

    Personally, I am not worried about the honey bee imports; it’s the others that seem to be signs of the real disaster — and we’re not even looking!

    1. I think that is a really good point, that no one else seemed to mention. There are people who have a pest control company out once a month to make sure not a bug/ insect is seen on there property. Multiply this into the thousands and it’s got to have an environmental impact.

  9. Assuming the graph is more reliable than other UN generated data (and the souce is the USDA, so one can hope, two 1945’s or not), this is only commercial producers with 5 or more colonies. So, my guess is the slow decline from 1950 to 1982 is probably more strongly affected by social factors (increasing urbanization, city bylaws against bees, decreases in hobby beekeeping, rise of mega pollination combines in CA etc.) than by landscape-use, habitat-degradation factors.

    What I’d like to see data on is the decline in feral honeybees with the introduction of Varroa. This mite has been a major challenge for commerical and hobby bee keepers, but rumour has it a disaster for feral honeybees. If honeybees were outcompeting native bees, then one might expect some rebound from native pollinators with the arrival of Varroa.

    That always seemed to me to be an interesting ‘natural’ experiment begging to be studied. In any case, the actual decline in US honeybees post-varroa has probably been much more than drastic than shown in the graph.

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  13. in my opinion, there are two reasons for CCD. the first is lack of interest in our younger generation. for the most part young people take no interest in any type of hobby that includes alot of physical labor. if you could put a video game in the hive, the ccd problem would be reduced by half! the second is we are trying to keep up with the jones’, by that i mean our yards, gardens, and landscaping have to meet the social standards. to do that insecticides must be used to kill unwanted flowering weeds and grasses that all pollinating insects use for survival. to help with this problem, get your kids, neighbors, friends ect. involved in beekeeping. the more bees we hive, the more the ccd will decline

  14. One interesting line of inquiry is to compare the status of bees used to pollinate only organic crops. According to one beekeeper who has been tracking organic bee keeping list serves, they seem to be immune to Colony Collapse. Another line of inquiry is to follow the decline of other pollinators to see if there is a common link to which they are all being exposed. Bats are currently treatened by a condition know as white nose syndrome caused by a fungus. It first emerged around 2005-6 roughly the same time as colony collapse. My hypothesis is that pollinators’ immune systems are slowly compromised by toxic insecticides and herbicides leading them to fall prey to common illnesses. In Europe, bee colonies and bat populations are more robust in countries where systemic pesticides have been banned.

  15. talking nonsense. eating bee vomit is completely un-neccessary and un-natural. ALL commodification of bees and intereference by Humans need to stop.

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