It’s been more than two years since HCN reported on the West’s disappearing honeybees (see "Silence of the Bees"). Since then, parasitic mites and a mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder have killed off thousands more hives. Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat, and many wild species essential to ecosystems. In China, hive collapse has forced farmers to start pollinating fruit trees by hand with brushes.
Now, researchers at Washington State University think they’ve figured out the major causes of colony collapse disorder. One problem is a pathogen called Nosema cerana, which causes an immune-deficiency disorder in bees, making them more vulnerable to infections, parasites and pesticides. Another is that beekeepers use the same honeycombs for many years, allowing high levels of pesticide residue to build up in the wax.
Beekeepers are taking action, reports Canada’s bclocalnews.com:
With that in mind, Babe’s Honey is in the middle of a $250,000 makeover to get rid of any trace of chemicals. Every single wooden hive box the company owns -- 35,000 -- are being sand-blasted, fire-scorched and repainted with canola-based paints.
The honeycomb inside, built up with years of wax residue that could contain unknown chemicals, is being removed, melted down and composted. Even the plastic frames that held the comb in place are being replaced with wood to prevent mould and mildew.
Other potential solutions include letting honeybees forage only in areas where pesticides and herbicides are not used, and breeding stronger queen bees. In urban areas, city dwellers are setting up their own hives too.
And native bees can help pick up the pollination slack: dozens of species of indigenous bees pollinate some crops even more effectively than the introduced European honey bee, although habitat loss has cut into their populations (see our story "Native Hum"). Now, a $500,000 federal grant will help restore native bee habitat in California and Oregon.
Meanwhile, scientists have developed a new kind of bait to trap a honeybee parasite. Once thought to be the major cause of colony collapse disorder, varroa mites can weaken or kill bees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released its first annual report on colony collapse disorder, summarizing the progress that’s been made in identifying and treating the causes of the problem.
Perhaps we’re finally turning the corner on the honeybee crisis. If we quit drenching the crops that bees visit with toxic chemicals, give the bees cleaner hives to live in, and stop trucking them thousands of miles and feeding them corn syrup, they'll be stronger and healthier and longer-lived.
Despite all the mystery that surrounded its emergence, Pitcher suggests the answers needed in the fight against CCD turned out to be obvious.“Everytime your kids got a cold, would you give them an antibiotic? Would you allow your youth to be raised in a totally ridiculous slum environment? No. So why did we, as beekeepers, become slum landlords?”
Hmm. Perhaps there's a lesson in here for all of us.