Colony collapse and me

So far, our bees have been nothing but heartbreak. Two years ago, we got our first two hives, neither of which survived that first winter. Last year, we were on the receiving ends of two hives that had been removed from houses, but we got them late in the season. Despite heroic measures and expert assistance from our friends Claire and Paul from the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association – we combined the hives, re-queened, and added brood – the colony mysteriously disbanded before the cold weather set in.

None of this has looked like Colony Collapse Disorder, but losing bees for any reason at all is a double whammy. Not only do you have to contemplate your failure every time you look at your empty hive, you have a persistent sense that, given the plight of the honeybee, you’ve let down the side. The success of our food supply depends on our ability to keep these guys alive.

No pressure, though.

I know that the trouble Kevin and I are having isn’t all our fault. We just happened to venture into beekeeping at a time when the odds are stacked against us. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that there’s something about this whole Colony Collapse Disorder thing that irritates me. Yes, I have a bee in my bonnet, and you’re going to hear about it.

Here it is. The investigation into what’s causing CCD seems agenda-driven, and I get the feeling that beekeepers everywhere want it to be the evil chemical companies that are killing our bees.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a whole skeleton’s worth of bones to pick with chemical companies, but it seems to me that the way CCD has presented all but rules out a chemical culprit. We’re losing bees all around the world. We losing migratory and stationary hives, from large commercial apiaries and small backyard amateurs. We’re losing them in warm climates and cold, in all different agricultural environments. The chance that every single hive is exposed to a particular chemical – like a neonicotinoid pesticide – is all but nonexistent.

I’m no virologist (and if you are, please weigh in!), but it seems to me that a pattern like that has virus, or maybe fungus, written all over it. It’s got to be something that can spread of its own accord, not something that humans must expose the bees to.

Nevertheless, when a study released a couple weeks ago purported to have recreated CCD by exposing hives to imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide used on corn, it was beamed around the world as the answer to the CCD puzzle. And not by some ranting blogger (um … not that there’s anything wrong with that), but by what is arguably our most august academic institution, Harvard University.

The Harvard press release, dated April 5, began: “The likely culprit in sharp worldwide declines in honeybee colonies since 2006 is imidacloprid, one of the most widely used pesticides, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health.” Case closed! On to the next pressing public health issue!

The study in question was of twenty hives – five hives at each of four different sites. Each site had hives fed high-fructose corn syrup spiked with varying levels of imidicloprid, ranging from none (the control hive) to a lot. At the 23-week mark, 15 of the 16 spiked hives were dead, with the most heavily spiked dying first. The researchers report that the deaths looked like CCD, with empty hives and only a few dead bee bodies.

There are a number of problems with the study, including the short duration, the questionable resemblance of the deaths to CCD, and the fact that, according to a local beekeeper who attended the meeting where the study was discussed, two of the four control hives also died. But I want to focus on its main problem: It posits, as the near-definitive answer to one of the most intractable, complicated problems of modern agriculture, the simple solution of one culprit chemical.

The researchers focused on imidacloprid because it’s used on corn, and the authors claim that traces of the pesticide are found in corn syrup, so bees that live out there lives nowhere near a cornfield are exposed to it by their keepers, who unwittingly feed it to them.

There are a couple problems with this theory. First is that there’s no hard proof that there’s any imidacloprid in corn syrup, let alone at levels the experimenters fed their bees. Corn syrup, it seems, is too viscous to be tested; it gums up the equipment. The manufacturer, Bayer, points out that their product is used on less than one percent of corn, and the levels the researchers used don’t replicate real-world conditions. (Of course, there are other pesticides in the same class, all of which act on the central nervous system of insects, and those may act in a similar way. Or they may not.)

But the second problem is the real doozy. May I have a show of hands of apiarists who have lost hives to CCD despite never having fed them a drop of corn syrup? There, I thought so. If imidacloprid were the answer, it would mean that a hive that never came near the stuff (or a close chemical relative), would simply not die of CCD. And that just can’t be true.

I do not understand how smart, well-intentioned people can put their imprimatur on a hypothesis that is so spectacularly improbable.

As for what really does cause CCD, I think we beekeepers need to turn our focus inward. While it’s certainly possible that pesticides play a role, my suspicion is that the real source of the problem is the apian monoculture. We started breeding bees in earnest – and learned how to do artificial insemination (the imagining of which boggles the mind) – only in the last half-century or so. In that time, we’ve been focused primarily on docility and honey production, and disease- and parasite- resistance have not been front and center.

But the real problem is that only a handful of breeders have been supplying bees to vast numbers of beekeepers, and we have limited the gene pool and bred out hybrid vigor. We have millions of hives that aren’t as robust as they should be, all susceptible to the same organisms. Throw varroa into the mix, add a few pesticides (no, I don’t absolve them completely) to compromise the bees in yet another way, and you’ve got a situation just right for an opportunistic virus, fungus, or bacterium – or a combination of them.

It’s not always Monsanto.

We’ve created, if not a monster, a situation in which a monster is thriving. And my theory (which is mine) is that we can slowly reverse the process by doing exactly what the beekeepers here on Cape Cod are doing, and what I understand many others are doing across the country – breeding local queens, deliberately introducing varied genes, focusing on pest- and disease-resistance.

I’d like to try some of that myself, but first we have to manage to keep a hive alive for more than a few months.  To that end, we installed a new colony this past weekend.  Wish us luck.

28 people are having a conversation about “Colony collapse and me

  1. I could not agree more. Everyone knows you shouldn’t marry your sister but in all fileds of agriculture and animal husbandry they do it. No wonder you have barking mad (pedigree) dogs, mad cows and plants that can only survive with heavy doses of fertilizer and pesticide.

  2. All the old guys in my local beekeper’s association (yeah, I go to the meetings and everything) agree with you. “We bred all the piss and vinegar out of ’em. We bred ’em for sweet tempers and lots of honey. You can’t gain nothing without losing something. They’re just too damned fragile.”

    And I think they’re right. I don’t know about the northeast, but down here in the Carolinas the conventional wisdom is that you have to requeen your hives every two years, with a commercially-bred queen. If you don’t and you allow the hive to requeen itself, you’ll end up with workers so dumb they can’t find their asses with both hands and a flashlight.

    That’s not a sign of a thriving species, in my opinion.

  3. Three or four generations of saving seeds from hybrid varieties of corn and you’ve pretty much hit a genetic dead end. Open-pollinated, with a large genetic pool, is the way to go.

    So, the same logic should apply to bees too. You can’t argue with biology. This is an interesting, and I think valid, hypothesis… now, wonder if it will get any play in the “big media”?

  4. That makes the most sense of anything I’ve read regarding CCD. I’ve heard the term monoculture used in terms of their diet; bees are moved from one large commercial outfit growing the same thing to another, and the idea is that their diet isn’t diverse enough to provide everything they need (which could very well be part of the problem) but it never occurred to me that the bees themselves are part of the problem because of the way they are bred.

    Amateurs like me don’t have a chance. I’m still going to keep trying to sponsor bees though- I’ve decided that I can’t really call it beekeeping if I can’t actually keep the bees; the best I can do is sponsor them.

    Good luck with this year’s bees; maybe three will be the charm for you.

  5. Luck! (Of the good sort, naturally!)

    Wish I could join you in beekeeping; we had hives when I was a kid and I miss it. But I live on 0.06 acres, and the neighbors have kids, and the town has rules …

    Yet another reason to win the lottery and get out on some land.

  6. Myrna Bowman says:

    A very informative post today! Just finished reading “Backyard Beekeeper” the newest edition which discusses the same ideas with pretty much the same conclusions with another twist on queens. That “bee”ing the hard chemicals used by commercial breeders to control varroa and antibiotics to control/prevent disease generate queens and drones with reproductive deficiencies. Then, a couple years ago I read something that broke us from using the hard chemical varroa treatment. If too strong, the hive will simply “abscond”; move out bag and baggage. Perhaps that is what happened to our first colony instead of CCD. We lost another colony over the winter. They were thriving when we checked on them on a warm mid-January day. 6 weeks later when we were ready to begin our spring work, every one of ’em was dead and decomposed in the bottom of the hive. We assumed they froze to death when a sudden very cold snap with strong east wind came about and, we thought, caught them out of cluster. A neighboring commercial beekeeper said no, the queen died; that is the classic result. That queen was just short of 2 years old. The beekeepers in our area are getting very much away from chemical means and into natural controls for pest and disease management. I questioned the local package broker the other day after reading that book and they said they have carefully cultivated the main supplier who has moved into those more natural means. SO, we will try another package and still have the one thriving hive we got last year. Wish us luck!

  7. Well, so far so good! Nobody has said, “Tamar, you’re such a jackass …” and has gone on to tell me exactly why my theory is wrong.

    I didn’t float it without first running it by some bee people who now WAY more than I do, and they didn’t think I was a jackass, so I went public. CCD is obviously complicated — otherwise we would have found the answer already — and we’re a long way from solving it. And people are having trouble with bees that isn’t necessarily CCD (and I’m sorry to hear about your problems, Barbara — I feel your pain) but may be part and parcel of the same constellation of issues.

    I wish all my beekeeping readers out there a good season, and I hope you all will keep coming back to compare notes.

    • Keryn — Thanks for that link. I’ve been to the site and read about their methods. It’s interesting that there are so many ways to keep bees, and the Warre method is new to me. Thanks for posting the link.

  8. Great post and I really love your hypothesis. As you point out CCD seem to be a very complex problem.

    As you say, the Harvard study has flaws, how could they figure this out with but 20 hives. It does seem short sighted. Yet I am not ready to totally dismiss their finding either. I could see the possiblity of imidacloprid as one of the culprits of CCD. I am neither a scientist nor a beekeeper, but you said that there is no hard proof that the pesticide is in corn syrup, but it still possible that is there. You asked for a show of hands on who feeds their bees corn syrup? Don’t the bees you get in through the mail, have a corn syrup solution to feed the bees in transit? Also isn’t fondont (which has corn syrup as an ingredient) used to winter over a hive? I know I have shooed bees away from my soda when I used to drink the stuff, so they could find it in the enviroment. The fact is there is a lot of corn syrup and corn products in the world. Maybe its not the imidacloprid, maybe another pesticide, or compound?

    Fungal, viral, bacterial, genetic, enviromental or chemical, I pray we find the answer soon, because I love to eat.

    As for Monsanto, don’t get me started!

    As for Monsanto, don’t get me started.

    • Rick, I think “complex” is probably the single best word to describe CCD. And I’m not ready to absolve imidacloprid and its close relatives, the neonicotinoid pesticides, of all responsibility, either. But there are many beekeepers who refuse to use corn syrup in feeding their bees, and who are breeding bees themselves, thus avoiding the problem of what the bees were fed before they got them. And it’s unlikely that teeny tiny amounts (which is what the bees would be exposed to, assuming there was some pesticide in corn syrup) that came from incidental exposure like the soda you used to drink would do harm. All the neonicotinoids are tested on bees before they’re released to the market. And we find CCD is places in the world where corn syrup isn’t ubiquitous, the way it is here.

      But I don’t think you’re wrong. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to suspect that a chemical that screws with the central nervous system of insects could weaken them or make them more susceptible to other, more dangerous substances, viruses, fungi, or bacteria. And I’m with you on hoping we find the answer soon because I, too, love to eat.

  9. Very interesting post & I believe you’re headed in the right direction. Diversity in Mother Nature is necessary. I wish you much success 🙂

  10. I don’t know enogh about bees to have an informed opinion regarding your or Harvard’s theory on Colony Collapse Disorder, but I do wish you and anyone else combating CCD the best of luck. I am greatful for your efforts.

  11. Wow, this is fascinating. I don’t know one thing about keeping bees, but I do know that you are looking at this in an appropriately unemotional, useful way, and it is really significant that you have opened this conversation up to so many other bee keepers.
    Because for me everything starts and ends with food, I have to ask: why are bees fed corn syrup? Does it make them grow or produce honey faster?
    Finally, even though I know nothing about bees and beekeeping, I do know a little something about scientific studies and how we can and should not extrapolate conclusions from them. It is shocking that Harvard would issue a statement that imidacloprid is the cause of the decline in colonies based on that study. Has anyone asked them about it?

    • Marge, bees are routinely fed corn syrup, because it’s cheaper than sugar. Since we take some of the bees’ honey for ourselves, we have to make sure the hives have enough food to get through the winter, and most kept hives get fed something. As for Harvard’s comments on the study, I haven’t read any yet, but a lot of beekeepers are taking issue with the study, and I’m going to make a prediction. You heard it hear first: They’ll retract their conclusion.

  12. Myrna Bowman says:

    A note about corn syrup and neonicitinoids; Here in Idaho, and I think probably everywhere, our dear friends the Monsanto people are very likely trying to muddy the water by publishing tests about the corn syrup being contaminated with pesticide. The REAL culprit is the neonicotinoids used to TREAT the GMO corn seed. Then the stuff is present in significant amounts in the corn plant itself and very much present in the pollen! Guess what bees like to play with! The problem actually has little to do with their sugar syrup, and almost everything to do with the pollen. Not to mention the possible nutritional changes in the pollen from the corn being genetically modified. Syrup is fed because here in the cooler climes, the bees need a nutrition boost to start the brood process for the year before pollen and nectar is available as well as nourish new package colonies while they have a tremendous amount of work to do before their replacements are adults. No small beekeeper, as far as I am aware will use corn syrup, and many will not make syrup from beet sugar as sugar beets are mostly GMO also. I expect we will probably join those ranks although cane sugar is significantly more expensive, and we are perpetually short of money during the spring. Hope this is helpful.

    • Myrna, thanks for clarifying. Yes, the problem is the pollen — when seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, traces are found in the pollen. Which is one of the reasons the pesticides are banned in some places. But that means that the bees have to ingest the pollen in order to suffer the consequences, and there are many reports of CCD deaths that are nowhere near corn — not to mention in places where neonicotinoids are banned.

      But it’s completely reasonable to suspect that those pesticides can weaken a hive — I know I do. I don’t, however, share your suspicion of GM crops. I think we’ve wreaked more havoc by restricting bees to just one kind of pollen (almond, say), and denied them the variety that is the best hedge against disease.

      In our neck of the woods, we do use corn syrup, particularly in the winter when it’s easy to use it to make fondant we can lay on top of the hive frames. I’m hoping to see some data on pesticide residues in corn syrup before I have to make a decision about that in the fall. For now, my bees have sucrose syrup.

      I wish you luck with the hives! Thanks so much for adding so much useful info to the discussion. Keep me posted.

  13. What a great post, Tamar. I also decided that the CCD issue is less of an event, and far more of a process. It has many variables and potential contributing factors, but the really big problem i still have with the Harvard study and most others is this: “What exactly are you talking about when you say CCD?” I have not read everything there is, even in English, on this issue. I have read nothing and heard nothing about anyone trying to standardize or codify even what CCD is, looks like, etc. My fear is that we are seeking a single solution to a single problem when the problem may not be a single problem. Like dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is one of over 400 different forms of demntia. Cancer is another example of what I am talking about. there is a big difference between cancers depending upon what type they are, where they are, what stage they are in, etc. Can you imagine how insane it would be for a physician to treat every patient with cancer the same way? What works for a small “just starting”skin cancer may not have much effect on a late stage bone cancer. CCD is like cancer with no one answering all of the relevant what, when, where, how and why questions, but a lot of folks seeking to lay blame, market a cure, etc.

    Of course, I will hope for you and Kevin more success this year than you can imagine. Just keep up the good work and try your best, we are not responsible for outcomes, just effort.

    • Greg, that’s a great analogy. I hope you don’t mind if I use it.

      CCD doesn’t always look exactly the same, and thinking of it as a process rather than an event makes a great deal of sense to me.

      Thanks so much for weighing in.

  14. Hi, a really interesting post. Over here in the UK there has been a growing body of opinion that another factor in the decline of the honeybee is the reduction of diversity in wildflowers. So many of our traditional meadows have been destroyed and so much of our farmland has been transformed in pursuit of efficiency, by removing hedgerows and reducing field boundaries – both historically rich areas of biodiversity both for plants and animals.

    I guess the theory chimes with the breeding theory, in that they’re not getting a wide enough variety of pollen and nectar, not a proper varied diet if you will and this may impact an already weakened species. Link here (somewhat related)

    • Thanks for the link, Naomi, and for the update from across the pond. I certainly think limiting the kinds of pollen and nectar available can have an affect on bees, and the migratory beekeepers take it to the nth degree by putting their bees in vast orchards pollinating only one kind of crop.

      Unrelatedly, we don’t have hedgerows here, really, and I’ve always wanted them.

  15. I agree that CCD has to be multi-factorial not single caused. But I think you rule out neonicotinoids too easily. 1) there are many of them, quite similar in actions not just imidaclopid and they are among agriculture’s most popular insecticides, used on many crops, not just corn. Here is an article listing a bunch of the imidaclopid products and citing examples when CCD has clearly resulted from spraying crops other than corn with it. 2) neonicotinoids are not only used in commercial agriculture, but by home gardeners, who are more likely to use it outside of the directions, in high quantities and concentrations. For example Bayer Systemic Rose and Flower Care sold in big box stores to home gardeners, has only one active ingredient imidaclopid 3) neonicotinoids spread in the environment and have been detected in ground water, soils, soil biota, field margin plants, etc 4) agriculturally, seeds are coated with imidaclopid in a huge planting machine that uses air pressure to blow out seeds and the insecticide powder. “Krupke explained how he tested that planter exhaust and found amazing levels of neonic pesticides: 700,000 times more than what it takes to kill a honeybee. That toxic dust lands on nearby flowers, such as dandelions. If bees feed on pollen from those flowers, that dust easily can kill them.”

    Given how far bees travel, can you guarantee that your bees have not contacted any neonicotinoid treated crops, home gardens, contaminated ground water, field margin plants, etc etc? I think that would be very difficult.

    • Kate, I don’t rule out neonics as one factor among many. I rule them out as THE cause of CCD. Although they can, of course, kill bees — just about any pesticide can, at high doses (and you cite several examples in which that happened), the evidence that they play a role is not very tight. There’s a good summary of the state of the science at the USDA web site:

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