What’s the Buzz on Bees? —A Primer on Honeybee Die-off and Colony Collapse Disorder

What’s the Buzz on Bees? —A Primer on Honeybee Die-off and Colony Collapse Disorder

Camila Acchiardo Vallejo


Humans have a long-standing relationship with bees.  Honey gathering is depicted in cave paintings that date back to the Paleolithic Age. Ancient Egyptians floated honeybee hives on rafts down the Nile to transport them from one crop to another. While honeybees are not native to North America, they were deemed important enough that honeybees were taken across the Atlantic by Pilgrims around 1622. Since their import to North America, Honeybees have become a staple in American agriculture. However, in the past few years, the number of bees and other pollinators has been in severe decline, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Since 2006, beekeepers all over the world have seen an annual loss of 30 to 90 percent of their honeybee colonies. [1] 

This massive die-off of honeybee hives is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD attacks what makes bees strong—their ability to organize socially. CCD makes bees slower, confused, unable to properly communicate with one another, and more susceptible to other diseases.[2]  The worrisome characteristic of CCD is that initially, it only impairs bees. If CCD outright killed bees, more hives might be able to survive CCD. Honeybee colonies are efficient powerhouses, they’re able to handle honeybee deaths; honeybee workers are redundant, and dead individuals can quickly be replaced in the colony. The problem is that the bees impaired by CCD force themselves to continue to work, so instead of being replaced by healthy bees, the impaired bees work slowly and inefficiently, which hinders the colony’s chance of survival.  These impaired bees eventually fly away and die away from their hive, which also decreases a colony’s chance of survival, as the colony is not aware that the bee is dead. At the tipping point, the colony becomes so impaired and dysfunctional that the colony has too few workers left to forage and care for the larvae and queen. Eventually, more bees die than are born, and the colony succumbs to CCD. A dead colony affected by CCD usually contains no adult bees or dead bee bodies; all that remains is a live queen and larvae.

Optimized-IMG_3464Now that CCD and honeybee decline is finally hitting mainstream news, many people are wondering: what’s the big deal? It’s only bees! Well, hypothetical uninformed person, the big deal is that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food eaten in the United States.[3]  Much of the food we take for granted—such as apples, almonds, onions, broccoli—and many other fruits, vegetables and nuts, would simply stop existing without honeybee pollination. In fact, bees are an agricultural commodity that has been valued at $15 billion annually in the U.S. alone.[4]

For years, researchers have been trying to find what causes CCD. Research pointed to the use of neonic pesticides (neonicotinoids), disease and parasites, poor nutrition, habitat change and habitat loss as the most likely causes of CCD. At one point, even cellphone signals and diesel fumes were once thought to affect bees’ health. A new study shows that there is actually no sole cause of CCD.[5] This new research shows that the massive die-off of honeybee hives is due to stress on bees, which can be caused by anything that stresses out a hive, including neonicotinoids, parasites, and poor nutrition.  This study found that, it’s the combination of stressors, especially neonicotinoids, which is causing CCD.[6] One stressor alone is not responsible for CCD, as previously thought. Once a hive hits a high level of stress—due to a combination of any possible stressors—the colony begins to fail and die off.

As a response to the declining pollinator population, both the U.S. government and concerned citizens are proposing several different measures to both increase pollinator populations and lower the use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides.  Some of the measures intended to address the decline in pollinators include President Obama’s “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators,” and EPA’s newly issued guidance for assessing pesticide risks to bees. The judicial system has also involved itself in the fight for pollinators.  In September 2015, the Ninth Circuit vacated the EPA’s decision to unconditionally register sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid that would have hurt honeybee populations.[7] Industry has also taken note of the public interest in protecting pollinators, and many companies are stopping the sale of neonicotinoids or plants treated with neonicotinoids.

Optimized-IMG_3462So, what can we do to help the bees? Many farming and environmental groups are calling for a ban on neonicotinoids, which have been shown to cause neurological issues in insects and are highly addictive to bees (much like how nicotine—the base of neonicotinoid pesticides—is addictive to humans). Those wanting a ban point to the European Union, where a ban on neonicotinoids was put in place in 2013. But, as the new findings discussed above show, a ban on neonicotinoids is not the “magic” save-all solution to CCD. Since CCD is caused by the accumulation of stressors, more than a ban is required in order to increase bee populations; a combined response from industry, environmental groups and federal/state government tackling the multiple reasons why pollinator populations are declining is the only way to lessen worldwide pollinator decline.  Further research on neonicotinoids and parasites, limiting the use of neonicotinoids (especially while bees are pollinating a crop), and providing bees with more diversely flowered areas which to pollinate will provide a better and longer lasting solution for CCD than solely relying on a neonicotinoid ban.


Photos included in this blog are of wild bees collecting pollen from native Arizona flowers. Photos courtesy of Ricardo Valentin Acchiardo, used with photographer’s permission. Grazie mille! 

[1] Telisport W.  Putsavage, Bees Getting Stung: Law And Science Uncertain, Food At Risk, Law360 (July 17, 2015, 11:07 AM), http://www.law360.com/articles/679742/bees-getting-stung-law-and-science-uncertain-food-at-risk?article_related_content=1

[2] Gayathri Vaidyanathan, Stress Alone Can Lead to Bee Colony Collapse, Discovery News, (Oct. 7, 2013 5:48 AM), http://news.discovery.com/earth/stress-causes-bee-colony-collapse-131007.htm.

[3] National Park Serv.—U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, What is a pollinatorhttp://www.nps.gov/subjects/pollinators/what-is-a-pollinator.htm.

[4] Id.

[5] John Bryden et al., Chronic Sublethal Stress Causes Honeybee Colony Failure, 16 Ecology Letters 1463-69 (2013), http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.12188/epdf

[6] Id.

[7] Juan Carlos Rodriguez, EPA Approval of honeybee-Harming Pesticide Nixed By 9th Circ., Law360 (Sep.  10, 2015, 11:54 AM), http://www.law360.com/articles/701339?sidebar=true.  

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