Beecalypse Now

May 1, 2007

The word is out about the impending beecalypse, apparently. For a long time, anytime I told anyone I was a beekeeper, their first question would be “do you ever get stung?” In the past few weeks, however, this query has been eclipsed by a slightly more excited “The bees, they’re disappearing! Where are they going?”

Colony Collapse Disorder (previously covered on this blog in Don’t Answer!, Silent Spring, Stephen Hawking-style, Bee Phage and Bee Thieves and The End is Nigh), aka Vanishing Bee Syndrome, aka Marie Celeste Syndrome, has captured the public’s imagination (or perhaps it’s merely given bored people something more interesting to say to me then “do you ever get stung).

As a quick summary for those just joining us, CCD is a mysterious ailment that is making hives disappear across North America (up to 70% of hives in some places).  Some European beekeepers have said they seen it, as well, but it’s not clear whether that may not just be a case of glomming onto a high-profile name for a common occurence.

Given the questions, I thought it might be useful to give a quick summary of the theories that are out there and status.

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup: It ain’t good for you, it ain’t good for the bees. Beekeepers feed their hives sugar syrup or corn syrup to get them off to a good start in spring-time, when there their productivity may be limited by nectar supplies. There is some speculation that the same “bad nutrition” factors that make HFCR bad for humans may make it bad for bees. Probably true, but CCD has been seen in colonies not fed HFCS, so this is unlikely. For the record, I use cane sugar and water.
  • GMOs: They ain’t good for the environment, they ain’t good for the bees. The theory here is that something in the genetically modified crops isn’t sitting well with the bees. While there are a variety of suggestive studies, the meat of this assertion comes from the fact that GMOs are much more prevalent in the US then elsewhere in the world, and the US is where CCD has raised its head. I’m no fan of GMOs, but I’m also no fan of witch hunts. For the record, there are no genetically modified crops in my back yard.
  • Pesticides: They ain’t good, they just ain’t good. Bees eat flower nectar, flower nectar is covered in pesticides, pesticides are bad for you. Your honor, I rest my case. OK, not that simple, as pesticides have been around for a while, and we’re just now seeing a major die-off. However, there is some recent evidence that nicotine-based pesticides may be killing bees. Turns out that in addition to giving you that warm, relaxed feeling with a cup of coffee or after a romp in the hay, nicotine is what tobacco plants produce as a natural parasite repellent. Some companies took the hint and manufactured pesticides out of it. Other companies produced advertisements of puffy-lipped women holding it seductively. I don’t smoke.
  • Cell phones: Oh, relax people. Please don’t talk on your phone while you’re driving, but cell phones aren’t doing anything to the bees. Even the researchers behind the original story say so. And yes, I have a cell phone.
  • Carsickness: No, I’m not joking. Well, OK, a little. You see, big time beekeepers with hundreds of hives move them around by truck to orchards and farms, so they can pollinate the crops (farmers pay the beekeepers for the…servicing). Some think that all this moving around, getting locked into boxes and reorienting to a new place may be addling the little bees brains. Seems reasonable, except why would it be such a big deal now? No, I won’t bring my bees to your garden.
  • There’s a fungus among us: Nosema ceranae to be precise. N. Ceranae is a close relative of Nosema Apis, a well known fungus that is usually treated with the chemical fumagillin. According to the L.A. Times, N. Ceranae has been found in bees that appear to have died from CCD, but the researchers are hedging their bets: the results are “highly preliminary”.  It is “one of many pathogens” in the bees, “by itself, it is probably not the culprit … but it may be one of the key players.” I don’t use fumagillin on my bees.
  • Alien Zombie Superbees: Previously covered here. Aluminum hats required.
  • Bee Rapture: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). That. Except for bees.

That’s all, hope it was helpful. OK, not quite all. There was another theory offered by Etta Hulme, forwarded on to me by Joe Smith:

Missing Honeybee Mystery

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