A Bitter Sweet Taste Of Honey
Bees have been in the news lately. Some reports say that whole colonies are dying in what has been dubbed “colony collapse,” while swarms are annoying residents by being in the wrong place.
Tom Theobald of Niwot Honey Farm said that colony collapse isn’t a new thing. “My take on this is that we’ve known about the problems for many years, but they haven’t been addressed.”
According to Theobald, “This has been a steep decline.” As many as 60 percent of the managed colonies in Colorado were lost between 1990 and 2000.
Mark Beren of Medovina in Niwot raises bees and uses the honey to make mead, a honey-based wine. “Nobody knows exactly what is causing colony collapse,” he said.
There are several theories, including the widespread use of cell phones, the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the use of pesticides.
The theory behind cell phone use is that the electromagnetic fields generated by cell phones disturb the bees’ magnetic navigation system. Experiments show that cell phones do disturb bees, but it’s not proof that they could kill whole colonies. Theobald dismissed the idea as media hype.
When GMOs were introduced, there were markers inserted into the genetic code to trace them. Beren said that those codes are showing up in varied species, including some bees.
Genetically altered corn is a particular problem, Theobald said. Bees feast heavily on corn pollen at one point in their development, and if the pollen is nutritionally deficient or is disruptive to the bees, it could weaken or kill them.
As for pesticides, Theobald said that a new family of pesticides derived from nicotine is a primary suspect. That family, called neonicotinoids, is used to treat seed corn and becomes systemic to the plant, including the pollen that the bees collect. That pesticide then ends up in the hives.
One pesticide, Imidacloprid, is now banned in France because it was found to disrupt the bees’ navigational abilities, but it is still being used in the US.
Beren said that the entire bee genome has been mapped, and there are only three genes related to immunity. Bees have to rely on the beeswax and the hive to protect them. If pesticides and contaminants are coming into the hive, the bees have little genetic protection.
But there is room for skepticism. “I think there’s some truth in all the theories, but you can find fault in all of them,” Beren said.
While mites are often considered a problem, Beren said that data from Hawaii, where there are few mites, shows Hawaiian colonies are having the some of the same problems.
Theobald said that the mite problem was first noticed in 1987 and 1988, with the first mites appearing in the Denver area in 1995. Those dates coincide with his observation of the decline in the bee population.
Mites also introduced secondary pathogens to the hives. As a result, colonies suffered high winter mortality rates. “By March, they were just gone.” Theobald said. Researchers named the condition parasitic mite syndrome, but “all they did was give it a name.” Theobald said.
In a bee-industry survey that included 2.4 million managed colonies, 800,000 to 1 million were lost over the past winter. Some die-off is expected due to stress over the winter, but not at that rate.
Beren said that hobbyists seem to be having less of a problem, but it also might be a reporting issue – those who lost their entire colonies may not be answering surveys. An organic beekeepers’ survey reported no loss at all, which Beren said is also unlikely because there is always some die-off.
Still, Beren suspects that the hobbyists might be doing better than the commercial colonies, even with the reporting error. He said one thing that might be affecting the commercial hives is the “off label” use of a pesticide being improperly used to combat mites. That off-label use would be more common at the commercial level.
“My theory,” Beren said, “is that the bees will probably survive this crisis.” While the bees as a species will probably be fine, “it’s more of a food problem than a bee problem.” About one-third of what we eat relies on the bees’ pollination, and if there aren’t enough bees, there won’t be enough crops.
Theobald added, “Potentially all of the problems are solvable,” and that some solutions are already in place, but that existing pesticide laws aren’t being enforced. “Fifteen percent [of the losses] can be attributed to irresponsible pesticide use.”
While Beren doesn’t know the final answer, he believes that part of the solution is to promote the use of honey. If the public is interested, the researchers will also be more interested.
Theobald agreed that research has fallen far behind and that if problems had been addressed quickly, the situation would be in better control. “You can’t do 20 years of work in two weeks,” he said.
Right now, even though the price of honey is going up and availability is declining, consumers aren’t really affected yet. Beren hopes that the solution is found before it’s too late. “The way this thing is growing exponentially, we could be in crisis mode before we know it,” he said.
As for the swarming? “It’s normal,” Beren said. Bees swarm to divide their colonies and create new ones. Sometimes they just end up in odd places.
Theobald said that on the Front Range, the majority of managed hives belong to hobbyists, and sometimes the swarms get away from them and become feral. That’s not a bad thing, as the existing population of feral bee colonies has decreased by as much as 90 percent.
Part of the problem is that feral colonies have a short life span because of the mites. Theobald said that by the second or third winter, the mites overwhelm the feral colonies, and the bees don’t survive the winter. The occasional swarms that break off from managed colonies are all that are keeping the feral population alive.
Unfortunately, hobbyist beekeepers are losing interest as problems grow. “We’re going to lose these people,” Theobald said. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it. If you lose the beekeepers, you lose the feral bees as well. The pollination we rely on them for will be absent.”
Theobald feels that the USDA and the EPA have failed in their duties to prevent this type of crisis. “They have put the whole food system in jeopardy,” he said. “It’s a very fragile relationship.”