Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What's up with the Honey Bees?

Beginning beekeeper
Honey bees are in the news. Have been for years now.  In about 2006, a mysterious condition became apparent to commercial beekeepers. Colonies of bees dwindled to just a few young bees and a queen. Instead of tens of thousands of worker bees in a colony only a handful remained. No disease or other pest organisms were apparent. It was not a typical pesticide kill in which many dead bees are found piled up in front of the colony.

The term “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) was coined to describe this phenomenon. Eight years later, a simple explanation for CCD still does not exist. But that doesn't mean no one cares or efforts to find answers have not been made. Last fall a panel of experts who have been studying the problem for almost a decade came to these conclusions:
1)   Consensus is building that a complex set of stressors and pathogens is associated with CCD.  

2)   The parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, remains the single most detrimental pest of honey bees and is closely associated with overwintering colony declines. ( note: overwintering losses are not necessarily CCD)

3)   Several viruses are associated with CCD and Varroa mites aggravate the virus problem. Other pathogens, both new and old, are also increasingly detected.

4)   Poor honey bee nutrition due to lack of good, diverse food sources has an effect on honey bee health. Loss of honey bee habitat and forage is a concern.

5)   Effects of pesticides on honey bees has been increasingly documented (PSU is taking a lead role here). Both acute (immediate, lethal injury) and sub lethal effects are known. Shockingly, Penn State researchers found that more than 100 different pesticides were detected in a sampling of honey bee pollen and wax. Interestingly, the most commonly found pesticides…. and those found in highest amounts, were applied by beekeepers to control Varroa mites!

Get the picture? Simple answers are very satisfying but just won’t do here.  And those who would like to demonize technology in the form of cell phones, GMOs and other modern inventions will not find support from the facts. Even the pesticide issue is complex. For a copy of the full report see this

Frame with honey bees
The good news is that bees of all kinds are getting the attention they deserve. Some cool breakthroughs in long term preservation of honey bee sperm will allow introduction of traits from European strains of bees through artificial insemination. (please note that the honey bee we have in the USA was an Old World import about 400 years ago… along with a lot of other plants and animals we eat and love).

And the public concern for bees has resulted in a surge of interest in beekeeping. The ABC’s of Beekeeping course that I have conducted for the last five years has filled to capacity every year. The same thing is happening throughout the country. Penn State has developed an on-line beekeeping course called Beekeeping 101  that allows you to study practical beekeeping anytime, anywhere.

Honeybees aren't the only bees on the plant. Thousands of other bee species are also experiencing disease, loss of habitat and assaults from pesticides.

Penn States Center for pollinator research is a great place to start if you want to learn more. You can even certify your garden as “pollinator friendly” through his program.

Be careful in assessing what you read about honeybee health in the popular press and the internet. Often times the headline (or even the main article) is designed to grab your attention but not enlighten the reader. Stories about bad guys and bogeymen sell newspapers but fail to fully explain important, complex issues such as the health of a cosmopolitan insect like the honey bee. 

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