In 2006, after honeybees abandoned hives in massive numbers, beekeepers began sounding an alarm that gained volume in 2007 when the mass exodus and die-off of bees picked up speed. Researchers named the mysterious malady colony collapse disorder (CCD).
“Unfortunately, beekeepers have struggled over the last few years from colonies dying from introduced parasitic mites and other things,” said Jerry Hayes, then president of the Apiary Inspectors of America from his Gainesville, Fla., office last spring. “They're already kind of numb because of all the problems. But in (the summer of 2006), beekeepers began losing colonies for reasons that weren't quite in line with the other problems.
“With affected hives, there are no dead or dying bees on the ground as we see with pesticide exposures or other diseases. No one can explain this behavior.”
The few bees left in CCD-hit hives appear to suffer from an immune system collapse, susceptible to bacteria and fungi that normally would cause little bother.
“That, too, is highly unusual, and we've been trying to find the cause for several months. It seems to indicate some sort of mass immune deficiency. There are some very smart people looking for an answer, but we still haven't come up with something we can combat through management practices or something else. It's quite frustrating.”
Time not a healer
With solutions to CCD in short supply, many were hoping the disorder would run out of steam and the key pollinators of U.S. crops would be back to full health in 2008. That hasn't happened.
“The AAIA did another survey looking at CCD,” said Hayes, assistant chief of Apiary Inspection at the Florida Department of Agriculture, on May 15. “This year, there's been an additional 36 percent loss in honeybee colonies over the winter coming into 2008.”
There has also been a shift in the region suffering most from CCD.
“East Coast beekeepers — especially Florida beekeepers who travel up and down the East Coast — took a dramatic hit in the 2006-07 period. Tens of thousands of colonies were lost.”
This year, the problem has largely moved to the West Coast. Beekeepers there “lost tens of thousands of colonies last winter.”
It seemed to have happened just before, during or after they moved bees into almond pollination in California. A lot of colonies were empty and had to be transported back to the beekeepers' homes after almond pollination.
“These bees are being impacted by something that's mysterious, but consistent. We just have to figure out the (offending) combination of viruses, microsporidians, chemicals and pollutants.”
Are crops already being impacted by the dearth of bees or have beekeepers been able to keep up so far?
“For the most part, they've been able to keep up. The good thing about honeybees is keepers can use management techniques — utilizing honeybee biology — to split healthy colonies into two. That's one way to recover some losses. Artificial feed and other things can also build up colonies.
“If cattle or poultry (perish), it takes a long time to replace the animal and production. Honeybees are a bit different and that's a good thing.”
But the ability to recover quickly can disguise deeper problems.
“People sometimes assume beekeepers are crying wolf about losses while there are just enough honeybees to get by. But that's because keepers are doing what they must to survive by splitting colonies and using other management techniques.”
Asked about a rumored push to bring Mexican bees into the United States to pollinate crops, Hayes confirms such a possibility.
“One of the scenarios being considered involves almond pollination. Because of increased almond acreage due to prices, beekeepers are being paid a premium to bring in their colonies. The almond industry absolutely requires honeybees to carry pollen from point A to point B.”
In the event U.S. bee numbers come up short, “Mexico — being involved in NAFTA and GATT — could petition the U.S. to allow its honeybees and keepers across the border. My guess is because of the scope and range and how lucrative almonds are, that could certainly happen.”
U.S. almond producers won't be denied the opportunity to produce a crop. However, that could deepen U.S. beekeeper problems.
By allowing in Mexican bees, “the Africanized bee issue would gain additional concern. But it isn't just that. There could be more pests, predators and other concerns — things that aren't in the United States now.
“If anything like that happens, it would further weaken and, possibly decimate, the U.S. beekeeping industry.”
On the other hand, points out Hayes, such worries are all predicated on the idea “that people care where their food comes from. I think USDA already projects that some 40 percent of our vegetables will be imported by 2015, or thereabouts. And the prediction is the U.S. will be a net food importer in 50 years. If people don't care about that, they probably won't care about U.S. bee health either.”
Hayes stresses that the public needs to understand that commercial beekeeping — where hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of colonies are tended — is an enterprise as agricultural as raising livestock or row crops. Too often, commercial beekeeping is seen as a “bucolic activity in the backyard.”
That is a false perception. Beekeeping is hard work, not a weekend hobby.
“Commercial beekeeping is production agriculture. And in production agriculture, you push the commodity to achieve. Corn growers apply nitrogen, scout for disease, and take care of nematodes, borers — the whole thing. Beekeeping is largely the same.”
Currently, so many products are being systemically applied to U.S. crops “that we're pushing honeybees very hard. As a result of all the things we've mentioned — as well as factors we haven't yet considered — the bees have reached a tipping point. With CCD, it appears something finally pushed them over. The bees said ‘We can't keep this up.’ And that's why we're seeing these dramatic losses.”
Meanwhile, aggressive Africanized bees are moving through the lower half of the country. “They're now in areas of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. They'll probably be crossing the Mississippi River in the next year, or so.
“Depending on who you believe, these bees have been responsible for three to 11 deaths in Texas. In Florida, we had the first human fatality due to them in April.”
Hayes is keen to separate the honeybees from their “killer” cousins. “We don't want people thinking bees in the white boxes are part of the problem when they're actually part of the solution.”
Asked to prognosticate on honeybee health, Hayes doesn't see a dramatic improvement anytime soon. “But it could get worse if we have another invasive pest, virus or disease added to the current list.
“It's interesting that honey prices are on the rise a little. Some keepers on the East Coast are saying if honey prices are up, there is less reason to travel west for almond pollination.”
It costs about $9,000 one-way to drive a loaded semi from Florida to California. If honey prices stay up, beekeepers “can save that transportation cost and stay afloat and keep their bees from being so stressed. That, of course, would take pollinators away from a growing almond crop. And that's another reasons why Mexican bees could be an option.”