Honey Bees Are Not Declining in North America

At least, not as a result of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder:


This is not to say honey bees aren’t experiencing problems. The bees are still struggling with imported Varroa mites (the likely cause of the 1990’s decline), and beekeepers are having to work harder to rebuild their summer stocks after a troubling increase in winter losses that may be related to CCD. But the overall numbers aren’t dire. Keep these statistics in mind when evaluating claims about imminent honey bee collapse owing to pesticides, Obamacare, or whatever the bogeyman of the day is.

(via Forbes)



Not every dead bee is colony collapse disorder


The media is buzzing this morning with the nth edition of What’s-Been-Killing-The-Bees:

…the mysterious mass die-off of honey bees that pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the US has so decimated America’s Apis mellifera population that one bad winter could leave fields fallow. Now, a new study has pinpointed some of the probable causes of bee deaths and the rather scary results show that averting beemageddon will be much more difficult than previously thought.

Ever since Colony Collapse Disorder surfaced in late 2006, we’ve been treated to story after story proclaiming that scientists have finally discovered the cause: pesticides, viruses, cell phones, parasitic flies, fungi, mites, GMOs. Each story has the same formula. A study documents cause X killing bees, the media runs X as causing CCD, and the activist community amplifies the connection with increasingly alarming rhetoric.

The trouble is a simple logical fallacy. X kills bees, and CCD kills bees, but that doesn’t mean that X = CCD. After all, cigarettes kill people, but not all people die from cigarettes. To bring any of these causes full circle requires not only establishing that X can replicate CCD symptoms- that’s the easy bit- but that X was present in documented CCD cases and that experimental treatment of bees with X leads to CCD. Anything short of that, however interesting, is hypothesis rather than fact.

As you might imagine, beekeepers themselves have become rather cynical about any science on CCD. After being burned, say, five or ten times, can you blame them?

Keeping in mind an appropriate level of caution, though, the most recent study in the mix is a good one. Writing in PLoS One, Pettis et al document a shocking quantity and diversity of pesticides gathered by honey bees in real agricultural settings. When they fed the most abundant of these- a fungicide- back to the bees at realistic doses, they found affected bees were more susceptible to the parasite Nosema ceranae. This observation is intriguing, as Nosema ceranae infections are known to kill foraging bees away from the hive, one of the signatures of colony collapse. Not only that, but Nosema ceranae is also a recent import to our continent, potentially explaining the sudden appearance of CCD.

As a cause of colony collapse, though, the science behind the pesticide/pathogen double whammy isn’t quite there yet. To move beyond a promising hypothesis, bee researchers must still document the presence of the relevant pesticides and pathogens in collapsed hives, and then re-create collapse at the colony level in field experiments. We owe it to the bees, and the beekeepers, to do the science right.

source: Pettis JS, Lichtenberg EM, Andree M, Stitzinger J, Rose R, et al. (2013) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae. PLoS ONE 8(7): e70182. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070182


Our backyard bees must have missed the memo about massive bee collapse. This week we harvested 90 pounds of honey from just two hives. It’s lovely!


The honey is a blend from dozens of floral sources, but based on the light tangy flavor I’d say linden, tulip tree, and clover predominate.

The internet is full of claims on the demise of honey bees, but be skeptical when listening to these stories. Most of the scary numbers (example: 31% of hives died this year!) reflect winter losses, not long term declines. Honey bees are insects, after all. They reproduce quickly enough to recoup cold season losses. A healthy colony can quintuple in a season, and overall colony numbers have remained steady year to year.

This isn’t to say bees aren’t faced with various stresses, and that the winter losses don’t pose a problem for early season pollination needs like almonds. But honey bees are still very abundant animals, enough so that talk of their imminent extinction is just bizarre.


Bee Photography Course: June 21st


Most of my workshops are broadly designed for teaching macro photography. Thus, I am pleased to announce a fun and rather more specialized course, a day-long session on photographing honey bees:

Honey Bee Photography

June 21st (Friday), 2013
-full day-

Long Lane Honey Bee Farms
Fairmount, Illinois
cost: $89

[register online]

The course is intended for beekeepers and bee enthusiasts with minimal photography experience. Course topics will include:

  • Magnification
  • Lighting
  • Composition
  • Photographing bees in the hive
  • Photographing bees in the field
  • Telling a story in pictures

Required equipment: (minimum) any camera, SLR or digicam, with a macro function; (recommended) camera with off-camera flash and macro near 1:1.

This workshop is the final day of a week long Beekeeping Institute taught by master beekeeper David Burns. People travel to David’s classes from all over the country. If you are thinking of keeping bees as a hobby, consider signing up for the full week. Otherwise you may elect to take just the photography bit.

How to tell the difference between honey bees and bumble bees

Honey bee on the left, bumble bee on the right. See the difference?

If one taxonomic error is repeated in the media more than any other, it is the inability to distinguish between honey bees, Apis mellifera, and bumble bees, about 250 species in the genus Bombus. Such errors are frustratingly common for insects that should be easy to recognize. Here, for example, is a recent story that mistakes a bumble bee for a honey bee, and here is one that does the opposite. Even the New York Times has stepped in this equivocation.

Both honey bees and bumble bees are among the most abundant flower-visiting insects in the northern hemisphere. How do we tell the difference? I’ve made a chart:

Bumble bees vary greatly in size, but they tend to be furry and relatively pudgy. These two bees are sisters from the same nest.
Honey bees are slender and more wasp-like in appearance, bearing a stronger, more obvious pattern of stripes.


A Carpenter Bee, Exhausted

Xylocopa virginica

At the end of a long summer season of brutal territorial battles and of courting coy females, male carpenter bees are so tired and tattered that they let themselves be handled without protest. There’s no danger of being stung, as all male bees and wasps lack the stinging apparatus.

photo details:
Canon EOS 7d camera
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec
diffused twin flash

Pollinators part II: now in HD video

Pursuant to the discussion below, I took the 7d out to the front garden this evening to film the sweat bees at work:

As several of you pointed out, grasses are supposed to be wind-pollinated. But the bright colors of grama flowers surely can’t serve any wind-related function. I suspect the bees are giving the pollen an assist- not necessarily by carrying it among flowers but by helping launch the pollen on its way. The video shows pollen streaming into the air as bees land on the anthers.

What do you think?

Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

Who was that beguiling blond with the blue dot?

Commentator EntoWannaBe (EntoWanna-Bee?) picks up 8 points for correctly guessing that she’s Cordovan and that the color of the beekeeper’s mark on her back indicates her age. The present insect was born in 2010: this year. She’s a queen from one of the student hives in the University of Illinois Beekeeping class.

The Cordovan trait is a single mutation that knocks out the black color in the bee cuticle. It’s a recessive trait, so visibly Cordovan queens are homozygous. Since this queen mated with mostly wild-type drones, most of her daughters retain the wild-type stripes. It’s a handy marker for beekeepers, as Cordovan coloration doesn’t confer any obviously negative effects on the bees and it allows for easy visual tracking of individuals.

Two points each go to Linda Bui, Joshua King, Megan M, and FormicidaeFantasy for bee-ing punny in the comments. Ha.

Speaking of, here’s a bee song to stick in your head: