Bee Jeez

What on earth is killing the world’s honeybees?

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.

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