Bee Jeez

What on earth is killing the world’s honeybees?

In “Silent Spring” (1962) environmental pioneer Rachel Carson warned that uncontrolled use of synthetic pesticides threatened to decimate the world’s population of song birds, the book’s title implying that people would one day wake to eerily silent mornings. Carson also foresaw a day when humans would experience a “fruitless fall,” because there would be “no pollination and there[fore] … no fruit.” Today, the prospect of a fruitless fall no longer seems far-fetched, as honeybee hives have recently been ravaged by an AIDS-like syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has killed billions upon billions of bees since being discovered in 2006. 

In “Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis” (Bloomsbury), Rowan Jacobsen examines the potential causes of CCD, including pesticides, mystery viruses, and even “lifestyle issues” such as stress and diet. Along the way, Jacobsen takes care to convey the importance of honeybees to maintaining our lifestyle, as they not only produce honey, but pollinate most of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are vital to maintaining human health.

As “Fruitless Fall” makes clear, CCD poses a significant threat to America’s managed honeybee industry, but the unfair trade practices of foreign competitors also call into question its continued viability. Of particular concern is so-called “honey laundering,” in which honey from China (frequently tainted by chloramphenicol and other antibiotics), is illegally diverted through other countries to avoid protective tariffs, taxes, and import fees. 

With this frightening assortment of issues in mind, Failure recently interviewed Jacobsen about the past, present, and future of the honeybee. Along the way, we learned a lot about CCD, the life of a fully-employed honeybee, and where not to buy honey.

How did you become interested in honeybees?

A year before CCD hit, I got interested in bees. I live in an old farmhouse in Vermont with a few acres of meadows and really good southern exposure. A friend of mine from California who used to keep bees was visiting and said, “This is a great place for bees. You should keep bees.” The idea appealed to me, as I’ve always been interested in them without knowing much about them. 

We went ahead and ordered hives from a beekeeper in New Hampshire, placing our order in the fall, expecting to pick up the bees the following spring. In February, the beekeeper sent an email to all his clients saying, “Sorry, no bees this year. They are all dead.” I thought that was really strange. Then I started paying attention and learned that bees have been in decline since World War II. But that same year bees began dying because of CCD, which is when I became professionally interested.

What is CCD? 

That’s a question that is still hanging out there because there hasn’t been a diagnosis. It’s a syndrome—a cluster of symptoms—that could be caused by more than one thing. It’s CCD when a hive of bees that has been perfectly healthy suddenly dwindles within a period of a few weeks and the bees disappear. 

The question is: What is causing the hives to collapse? No one knows yet, but there are a few likely candidates. And there have been a few occasions when it seemed like a smoking gun had been found. A year or so ago there was a big announcement [via a press conference and paper in Science], that this genetic sleuth [Dr. W. Ian Lipkin] had found a mystery virus—Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV)—and asserted that it was the cause of CCD. After that there were a lot of stories about IAPV, and then the media went away, in effect saying, “Case closed.” 

But it turned out that the evidence was pretty scant that IAPV was causing CCD. At first, it seemed it correlated really well with dead hives and was not showing up in live hives. Then it showed up in live hives, and then it turned out it was all over the world. So that didn’t really pan out, although IAPV may still play a role in CCD.

When was CCD discovered? 

It was first labeled as such late in the fall of 2006. I open my book with a Florida beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg and the story of how he first discovered that his bee colonies were dying. At the time, in November 2006, CCD didn’t have a name, but when Hackenberg called the apiarists at Penn State University [College of Agricultural Sciences], it turned out they had been getting similar reports from other beekeepers. Soon everyone started talking to each other and realized they had some sort of weird disorder on their hands. 

But the beekeepers now believe they saw the first signs of CCD a year earlier. They just didn’t recognize it for what it was. Part of the problem is that bees have been unhealthy and dwindling in number for decades, in part because of varroa mites [pinhead-sized parasites that sink their fangs into bee larvae, thereby introducing disease]. So beekeepers are used to things going wrong, and didn’t realize this was a new problem until a year after it started.

How do varroa mites figure in to the CCD equation? 

That’s another question everyone has. Dealing with varroa mites is still the number one issue for most beekeepers. The main way to treat varroa mites is to dump pesticides into your hives, which isn’t so hot for the bees. And it’s a disaster if you are trying to make honey, because no one wants honey with pesticides in it. 

The worst part is that the mites have quickly developed resistance to whatever pesticides they have used. So at the moment there isn’t any treatment that’s working well. Beekeepers are turning to more natural treatments like formic acid and certain aromatic oils that seem to bug the mites more than they bug the bees. 

What effect does CCD have on honeybees? 

The corpses have all kinds of viruses. The thought is that the viruses aren’t the cause; they take hold because the bees’ immune systems have crashed. So it’s like a bee AIDS, where whatever is going on wipes out their immune systems, and then the coup de grace can be delivered by any number of different diseases or parasites. 

One thing that could be responsible is this new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have revolutionized the pesticide world in the last ten years or so. They function very differently than previous classes of pesticides in that they don’t kill insects outright. They destroy insects’ immune systems and mess up their nervous systems so they become disoriented and don’t eat—things like that. Neonicotinoids are being used on absolutely everything, including our lawns, golf courses, and more than 100 different crops. So bees are definitely picking up these pesticides in the environment. 

Since I wrote the book, neonicotinoids have been banned in Germany and Italy. But the scientists I have spoken to in the U.S. don’t think they are a major player, though all the beekeepers do. There’s a total disconnect between the beekeepers and scientists. 

What does an impacted hive look like? 

I got to see both healthy and collapsing hives in Florida. When you look at a healthy hive you get the sense that a bee colony is a superorganism. It’s all these tiny individuals, but there’s a higher level of organization. Different bees have different jobs and there is constant communication between the hives so they act as one unit. 

What you see in a hive that is collapsing is that the foragers are not able to bring in enough food. Or if they are bringing in enough, the bees that normally receive and store the food are in short supply. And then the nurse bees that are supposed to take care of the next generation aren’t doing their job, and the whole system gets out of whack.

Normally, a bee hive will have about eight different frames of honeybees, but in a colony that is a few days from collapse there may be one frame. And the bees are just wandering around aimlessly, as if they are looking for orders from a commander that isn’t there anymore. It’s like a mind suffering advanced Alzheimer’s disease. 

Is CCD limited to honeybees? 

Yes, as far as we know. But nobody is studying other bees. So if it is impacting them we might not know it. 

How has CCD impacted the honeybee industry? 

The honeybee industry is reeling, and has been for a while. Nobody has really gone into beekeeping lately. The people doing it have been doing it for 20 or 30 years, but they are retiring because they aren’t making any money. So the number of hives in the U.S. is getting perilously low, to the point where we soon might not have enough for the [annual] almond pollination [in California]—the event that requires the most hives. The beekeeping industry might get so small and unprofitable that it would disappear to the point where we would feel it in our crop yields.

Maybe the industry needs a government bailout. 

[Laughs]. A year and a half ago, when I was doing research for the book, they were trying to get four million dollars from Congress, and now that number just seems absurd. 

At one point, there was speculation that cell phone towers were the cause of CCD. How did that theory get propagated? 

It started with a couple researchers in Germany [Wolfgang Harst and Jochen Kuhn] who wanted to see what electromagnetic radiation from cordless phones would do to a bee hive. They took some hives and stuck [the base of] cordless phones into the hives. The bees acted a little funny, and didn’t make quite as much honey or new honeycomb. But when the story got translated into English—badly—cordless phones became cell phones. People ran with that and stories started popping up on the Internet that cell phones were killing bees because they were screwing up their navigational abilities. 

Genetically modified crops have also been discussed as a factor. What about that? 

You could see why that would make sense because bees are getting their food from crops and if the crops are genetically modified that could be a problem. But studies have shown that there is no effect there. The places where CCD turns up aren’t necessarily the places where genetically modified crops are used. And corn and soy are the big genetically modified crops, neither of which is a normal food for honeybees.

Have any other theories received consideration?

One is that it’s a lifestyle issue. Bees, like any other living organism, have certain requirements to remain healthy. And the bees in the pollination rental business lead a stressful life. Instead of being in a field somewhere and gathering food from a bunch of different wildflowers, they are trucked from job to job on a flatbed—400 hives to a truck—and hosed down so they don’t die. When they are unloaded they normally have a single type of flower to get food from. And in between jobs they are fed high fructose corn syrup. So they have extremely unhealthy diets and stressful lives. 

Based on what you know, can you speculate about the likely cause of CCD?

I think pesticides are definitely a factor, but I don’t believe it’s the neonicotinoids in particular. A recent study on pesticide residue in hives found pesticides in every single sample. The average sample of pollen or wax had five different pesticides and they found 43 different pesticides in total. The neonicotinoids were very far down the list. But every pesticide you can think of was turning up in hives, including things that haven’t been used in a long time. The public has been led to believe that pesticides don’t last that long in the soil, but I think that’s going to turn out not to be true.

One of the interesting things I learned in writing the book is that all pesticide testing is done by the pesticide companies themselves. They do their own testing and report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so basically it’s all self-policing. And the only thing they check for is how much of a pesticide it will take to kill the creature of concern. They don’t check for behavioral changes that a low level of pesticide might be instigating. Sub-lethal impacts of pesticides and chemicals on ecosystems and individual species may become a huge story within the next four or five years. 

In light of this, where would you recommend buying honey?

I only buy from beekeepers I know, because a lot of beekeepers are using pesticides in their hives. I would definitely look for beekeepers that are doing organic beekeeping. And if you are buying honey from a supermarket there is a pretty good bet that it’s …

From China? 

From China. 

In the book you discuss “The Forgotten Pollinators” (1996) and how its authors, Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, predicted fruitless falls. Has anyone accused beekeepers of being alarmist?

Beekeepers aren’t being alarmist. Before bailouts were cool, they were looking for a bailout to keep their industry going because it’s so close to the edge of collapse. 

Is there a chance that honeybees will die off? Or is it a case of bees being no longer able to meet human needs?

More the latter. The managed honeybee industry could very well die off. But wild honeybees are doing fine. The Africanized killer bees—the original honeybees from Africa—are very resilient bees as well as pretty good pollinators. But they are mean as hell so people can’t work with them very successfully.

What would be the effect on humans if honeybees were to die off?

There’s this apocryphal quote from Albert Einstein that has appeared in a lot of reputable media stories [“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”]. But he never said that apparently. Anyway, humans wouldn’t die off without honeybees. However, they pollinate about a third of the foods that we eat and it’s the third that supplies our antioxidants and vitamins—the fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I like to think of them as our antioxidant providers, and without them the quality of our diet would decline. 

What fact would most people be surprised to learn about honeybees?

That [virtually] all of them are female [laughs]. People are still really surprised by that. Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie? They got that completely wrong with all those little male bees. It doesn’t work that way. More than 99 percent of all the bees in a hive are female. There are just a few hundred males, which are called drones. And their only job in life is to mate, and they die when they do. They are just sperm on a wing. 

Have other creatures experienced anything similar to CCD? 

In the northeast last winter bats were turning up dead with this weird white fungus on their noses. That was eerie to me because if you read the newspaper stories and took out the word “bats” and substituted “bees” it would have been the same story. I have no evidence that there’s a connection but it made me wonder whether there is some insidious thing going on at a fundamental level in the environment.