Bees Disappearing – Colony Collapse Disorder

Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

If Einstein were alive today, he might point to the mysterious colony collapse disorder (or CCD) that has beekeepers and farmers concerned in North American and Europe. CCD is a phenomenon in which the worker bees of a beehive suddenly vanish. While “colony collapse disorder” as a term is relatively new, and the abrupt disappearance of worker bees from a hive is not necessarily a new occurrence, the new terminology was first attributed to a significant rise in disappearances of Western honey bee colonies in North America in late 2006.

One of the greatest concerns stemming from CCD is the problem of pollination. Most people do not realize that bees are responsible for the pollination of some of the most basic crops, including (but not limited to): avocados, apples, cherries, cucumber, melons, prunes, pears, plums, pumpkin, squash, and kiwi. Bees also pollinate many ornamental plants, as well as dozens of vegetable and flower seeds.

Many beekeepers and key influencers in the bee community (as well as the news media and other opinion-holders across the globe) have weighed in on the CCD phenomenon. While there is still a lot of speculation and the lack of a decisive explanation, some legitimate theories have taken root.

What are the current theories that explain colony collapse disorder?

Most people agree that CCD likely stems from one or more of these contributing factors: drought, mite control, parasites, pesticides, chemical buildup, feed/nutrition, and decreased bee pasture. Most of these factors have played roles in bee culture for years, but the growing number of disappearing bees has beekeepers and bee experts looking more closely at how the factors might be combined to cause CCD.

Where are the bees going?

The keyword here is disappearance. Most cases of CCD report a disappearance of between 20-80%, with no apparent clue as to where the bees have gone. What is generally accepted is that few the bees that are left in the hive are all young bees, and often queens are left as well.

Are the bees dying off?

Die-off is part of beekeeping. Dead bees are usually found in the spring with “normal” winter losses generally fluctuating within the 15-25% range. The key when it comes to CCD is distinguishing whether or not hives have experienced CCD or non-CCD losses. CCD criteria are that 50% or more of the dead colonies are found with few-to-no dead bees in the hive or apiary.

How many bees have gone missing each year?

Since CCD reared its head in late 2006, the number of bees lost to CCD in America has risen each year. In the winter of 2008, a USDA survey showed that 36% of America’s 2.4 million hives were lost to CCD-that’s well over 850,000 hives total. This survey covered almost 20% of American’s 1,500 commercial beekeepers and suggested an increase of 11% over 2007’s losses, and 40% over 2006’s losses.

What’s next for the bees?

Bee experts are working hard to discover the real cause of CCD, which as yet remains unknown. Services for North American beekeepers have been made available for rapid virus screening (Bee Alert working with BVS, Inc. and the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center (ECBC)), as well as screening for all bee, insect, and plant pathogens (Bee Alert with ECBC). Because the cause has remained elusive, beekeepers are encouraged to maintain close care, documentation, and communication while managing the health of their bees.

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