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Colony Collapse Disorder Is Not What You Think

And why it could turn out to be a good thing.
Jun 20, 2014· 14 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

As I slipped on the pants, the white fabric dingy and stained, almond farmer Nate Siemens told me to stuff the long, wide cuffs down into my shoes. “Tuck those edges down as far as you can—they will sting through your socks.” I pulled on the hat, mesh falling over my eyes, and slipped my hands into the big, thick gloves. Siemens had on his own gloves and canopied hat—the springtime uniform of almond growers. We were ready for an encounter with more than 100,000 bees.

While the polar vortex was sending icy jabs of arctic air as far south as Atlanta in February, a warm winter in California’s Central Valley meant the new growing season was getting off to an early start. Almond trees are hard to miss in springtime: The nearly 150,000 acres of them in Kern County—out of as many as 800,000 acres across the San Joaquin Valley—are thoroughly dusted with white blooms, each blushing a shade of pinkish red at the throat. The 18 acres here at Fat Uncle Farms, just outside Wasco, Calif., are no exception.

Almonds don’t require much human labor this time of year, but every spring around 60 percent of the country’s 2.5 million hives arrive here on 18-wheelers from as far away as the Midwest to pollinate the state’s second-largest cash crop, worth $4 billion annually. There would likely be no almond crop without bees; it’s one of the roughly 33 percent of crops worldwide that depend on pollination for reproduction. Some 10 million hives—$2 billion worth of honeybees—have fallen out of commission nationwide since colony collapse disorder, an affliction marked by the sudden death of nearly an entire hive’s population (or “colony”), was first observed in 2006. Bees are now of great interest to scientists, environmentalists, food policy wonks, celebrities, the media, and many people who never thought much about bees unless they were in danger of being stung by one.

Siemens’ Fat Uncle Farms keeps its own bees, and the side business he runs with his father-in-law will audit the health of 50,000 hives trucked into the valley this year—critical work in light of CCD. Where better, then, to view the economic and environmental impact of the much discussed affliction and find out what’s killing the bees?

Mites and pesticides. Fungus and fungicides. Monoculture. Karma. These are a few of the things that have been posited as causes of CCD. “I, as a researcher, was a little naive in the beginning thinking that we would find one cause and then hopefully one solution” to CCD, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and the lead author of the Bee Informed Partnership’s annual honeybee loss report, which is funded and coauthored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But it’s clear especially in the broad definition of CCD—high rates of winter loss and annual loss—that it’s a lot more complicated.”

“I have not had anyone experience CCD personally,” Steve House, director of operations for California Almond Pollination Services, told me in his truck as we drove between growers a few weeks after the bloom. House was collecting hives to send north on the next stop of a journey in which they would pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the U.S.: The almond bloom marks the beginning of an annual insect migration of trucks full of beehives following the flowers from the San Joaquin Valley, up into the fruit orchards and berry farms of the Pacific Northwest, across the Plains states and their various vegetable plots, and eventually all the way to the cranberry bogs of the East Coast. “I’ve never talked to a beekeeper who has personally experienced it.”

Honeybee hives in California’s San Joaquin Valley. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

“I don’t even use the term ‘colony collapse disorder’ anymore,” Bob Curtis, associate director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California, an industry group representing growers, told me. “ ‘Colony collapse’ is just a description of a symptom.”

This was the near consensus among the farmers and bee professionals I spoke with: CCD wasn’t their utmost concern; the disorder was most likely, as much of the research has suggested, a confluence of stresses affecting bee health. Many believe we’ll never know what caused bee colonies to start dying en masse. The good news is the public is finally paying attention, and we have CCD to thank for that. It’s become a very successful brand representing the very unsexy topic of pollinator health. Everyone from Monsanto to the federal government to the disrupt-everything anarcho-libertarian crowd is putting money into honeybee research. There are even beehives on the rooftops of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.

“Rather than talk about honeybee health with the consumer or the general public, there’s this label—‘colony collapse’ is something people can latch on to and understand,” Curtis said.

But even as art institutions and five-star hotels welcome stinging insects on their premises under the guise of “saving the bees” from CCD, researchers are seeing less of it.

“Colony collapse disorder, by the strict definition, we don’t find it anymore,” said vanEngelsdorp. The phenomenon that was observed for the first time in 2006 has a particular look, he explained, which has lately been absent: “No dead bees in the bee yard, in the bee apiary—evidence that that collapse happened very quickly. Those very classic symptoms of CCD we haven’t seen in three or four years.”

In the same period, a lay understanding of colony collapse disorder has developed that lumps together disparate honeybee health concerns, ranging from pesticide exposure and habitat loss to the monoculture approach to farming and other perceived ills of industrial agriculture.

“That isn’t our scientific meaning of CCD—it means something else,” vanEngelsdorp said. “But it has the public’s imagination. They want to use a very broad definition of CCD just for higher colony mortality because it’s easier to say. I don’t think there’s any problem with that.”

Colony collapse may no longer be a thing, but bees are still in the midst of an upward trend in mortality that predates CCD by decades. In the 1940s, there were 5 million managed (as opposed to wild) honeybees in the United States, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. Today that number is down to 2.5 million (though far fewer acres are under till). Recent winters have seen a lower annual overwinter die-off rate—around 23 percent—than the roughly 33 percent of CCD’s 2006–2011 heyday. Still, that’s compared with decades ago, when, according to vanEngelsdorp, 10 percent was considered a bad year.

VanEngelsdorp feels that as long as bees are dying at an unsustainable rate, whatever brings attention to the issue is a good thing. “The instances of CCD in the proper definition probably helped to highlight that these other issues are going on in the bee world, and they need to be addressed. I think it’s positive that people are concerned,” he said.

Beekeepers can hedge against high annual losses by breeding more queens and keeping more hives to ensure that there are still enough honeybees, the insect linchpin of the food system, to truck across the country, chasing the bloom. But with a third of a pollinator population susceptible to sudden, mysterious death and wild bee populations similarly threatened—by habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and other ills—trying to breed our way out of the problem may not be enough to avoid a breaking point. In her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote of a host of chemicals, many long since banned, devastating the landscape back in the 1950s. She tells the story of a beekeeper in New York state who sued the USDA in 1957 after DDT nearly wiped out all of his 400 colonies. “It is a very distressful thing,” Carson quotes him as writing at the time, “to walk into a yard in May and not hear a bee buzz.” We may not be spraying the same chemicals in 2014, but the potential for a silent spring still looms.

I, as a researcher, was a little naive in the beginning thinking that we would find one cause and then hopefully one solution.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, entomologist, University of Maryland

The Nosema ceranae pathogen is a single-celled parasite that, when dormant, can resist extreme temperatures and extended periods without water. Last July, vanEngelsdorp and his coauthors published a paper looking at the ways agrochemical exposure affects bees afflicted with nosema. The data showed that fungicides—long considered no risk to pollinators—significantly reduced the bees’ ability to fight off the insidious N. ceranae.

“There’s a lot of rules against spraying insecticides while bees are in the bloom,” vanEngelsdorp said. “But there aren’t the same precautions for fungicides because everyone thought they were safe.”

Although many growers have switched to spraying fungicides at night, when bees aren’t present, and are generally getting better at farming their orchards in a pollinator-friendly manner, mistakes that have deadly consequences for honeybees are still being made. This season, applications of a fungicide mixed with an insect growth inhibitor, which causes larvae to be unable to molt and develop into adult bees, was applied throughout the state. This so-called tank mixing seems to have affected at least 80,000 colonies, and perhaps as many as 400,000, according to the nonprofit Pollinator Stewardship Council. VanEngelsdorp noted that the growth inhibitor is labeled safe for bees—the deadly caveat being that it’s only safe for adult bees. Still, it’s unclear whether it was one chemical or the cocktail of fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides itself that caused the damage and deaths.

Curtis at the Almond Board wouldn’t comment on the incident directly, saying only that its best practices recommend that growers not spray while bees are in the orchards. (The Almond Board does not collect its own data on damaged and dead hives.)

Even with the cause of such events opaque, vanEngelsdorp thinks there ought to be changes to the regulatory process that evaluates products as safe, and changes to labeling language to make it clear when and how the chemicals should be applied.

See how quickly this stuff gets decidedly unsexy? Wouldn’t it be more fun to ban some pesticides? House believes a variety of factors are at work, but, he told me, “I think pesticide poisoning has more to do with it than anything else.”

A lot of people agree. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about a recently developed class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, pesticides that have been found safer for mammals than other kinds of commonly applied pesticides, as the smoking gun causing colony collapse disorder—that is, a disorder that essentially doesn’t exist anymore outside the public’s imagination. Late last year the European Union enacted a two-year ban on three kinds of neonicotinoids, and the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, introduced in the House by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., would impose even more stringent regulations in the United States.

Nate Siemens, owner of Fat Uncle Farms in Wasco, Calif., dons protective gear when working with bees in his almond orchard. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Numerous studies have left little doubt that neonics, as they’re often called, can kill bees. Most recently, a study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health and published in May in the Bulletin of Insectology appeared to deliver a single cause of colony collapse disorder that confirmed the suspicions of many believers in CCD as popularly understood: It was the farmer, in the apiary, with the pesticide.

Media outlets ran with the results, but scientists and beekeepers questioned the study’s design—researchers, they said, exposed bees in the study to levels of neonics that far surpassed what they would have experienced in an agricultural setting.

“I don’t think it sheds any light on the real-world situation,” vanEngelsdorp said of the paper.

And studies of the sub-lethal effects of different pesticides on honeybees—that is, what happens to bees that survive the initial exposure—suggest that a narrow ban on neonics wouldn’t succeed in saving the bees.

“I think it’s a little bit naive to think that if we ban neonics, all of our problems will go away,” vanEngelsdorp said.

There is nonetheless plenty of evidence that pesticides are killing bees. That is not so alarming considering they were designed to kill insects. Siemens would show me some such evidence.

Even from inside the cab of the pickup truck (the license plate, plastered with splatted insects, reads “BEE MAN”), bumping down an access road into the middle of Siemens’ almond orchard, I could hear the drone of honeybees, their hives—stacks of wooden boxes—set on pallets at the end of each row of trees. From a distance, the boxes could be mistaken for fruit crates. After we got out of the truck, the hum became louder. Even in a protective suit, it takes awhile to become comfortable with so many bees landing on your neck.

Siemens pointed to the ground around a hive, and there they were: dead bees littering the floor. Looking at them through his eyes, I could almost see the chalk outlines of the corpses in this miniature crime scene. Probably pesticides, he said: “There are always sprays happening in an industrial ag situation.” In a place like Kern County, where little more than 20 feet can separate one orchard from another—a meaningless border to pesticides and bees alike—exposure is impossible to avoid (organic farms are supposed to have buffer zones). If it’s not the almond trees next door, it’s the cherry orchard a few miles away—bees have a daily range of about five miles.

“Just last week we found a whole section of them that got hammered by pesticides, so they just had massive die-off,” he said. He tried to do some detective work, checking county records to see which growers in the area had been spraying their crops in the preceding days.

Time will tell how effective such changes turn out to be, and with research and incidents like this spring’s die-off in California pointing to a complicated picture of honeybee health, conservation groups are taking a holistic approach to creating a better environment for pollinators—and it involves lots of flowers.

“Farmers are supposed to register with the county when they spray a pesticide,” Siemens explained. “But if they didn’t register for some reason—and a lot of them don’t—then there’s no way of knowing.”

So that is the biggest threat to bees?, I asked. Pesticides?

His response was quick: “No, no, it’s not,” he said. “The main danger to bees is actually the beekeepers themselves.”

The distinctive white-and-pink bloom of almond flowers is an annual occurrence in California’s Central Valley. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Siemens pointed down the dirt track. A crew from a local beekeepers’ co-op that place local hives in orchards like Fat Uncle’s was checking the health of the worker bees and searching for the queen to see how she was doing. When they found an unhealthy hive, they moved some of the bees to a stronger hive, leaving honey from the healthier hive in their place. Exposing bees from a sick hive to honey from a healthy one—packed with nutrients—helps revitalize them. It’s typical of practices beekeepers are employing more of nowadays, with their concern over a “bee apocalypse.”

“There’s all sorts of good beekeeping practices you can do to keep your hives healthy and mitigating against disease,” Siemens explained. “For someone running their operation on the cheap, it’s obvious. You crack open their hives, and it’s just like crap,” full of worms, flies, and dead bees.

Even if Siemens and House have never experienced CCD in the scientific sense, they’re constantly seeing the changes that the popular idea of CCD has brought to the way beekeepers do their work. For example, in the years since Bee Informed Partnership and the USDA have conducted the annual honeybee health survey, a mite with the menacing name Varroa destructor appears to be one of the most persistent health threats—and infestations can be managed and treated by beekeepers.

“CCD was sort of a wake-up call for beekeepers to take stock of their hives and maintain them in better fashion,” House told me. “I’ve noticed that our beekeepers started treating for the mites, started keeping cleaner hives.” Similarly, growers are adjusting the ways they spray their crops to protect the bees their harvests depend on.

Time will tell how effective such changes turn out to be, and with research and incidents like this spring’s die-off in California pointing to a complicated picture of honeybee health, conservation groups are taking a holistic approach to creating a better environment for pollinators—and it involves lots of flowers.

The Xerces Society has been doing conservation work related to native bee species—bumblebees and the like—since 1971. Only in recent years has it begun to work on honeybee health issues. The Portland, Ore.–based nonprofit is concerned about the use of neonics and other agrochemicals, but much of its work is geared to making the non-agricultural ecosystems that exist along the margins of American farms—whether California almond orchards or Oregon blueberry farms—more hospitable to bees.

If you’ve got more habitat and better habitat, the hives are better able to overwinter, resist disease, resist exposure to pesticides.

Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director, Xerces Society

“If honeybee hives are exposed to pesticides, they’re more susceptible to diseases. If honeybees are diseased, they’re more susceptible to the problems of pesticides,” said Xerces pollinator program director Mace Vaughan. “If you’ve got more habitat and better habitat, the hives are better able to overwinter, resist disease, resist exposure to pesticides.” In other words, a healthier environment means healthier honeybees—no matter what is causing them to die.

Driving through the Angeles National Forest on my way to visit Fat Uncle, the chaparral brown with drought, I’d spotted arroyo lupine flowers cropping up along the shoulder of the interstate. The spikes of pale purple flowers may look dainty, but these and other species native to California can eke out an existence with the slightest amount of water. Down on the valley floor, where great expanses of gray-brown dust dominate the landscape that isn’t taken up with orchards and other crops, there was no sign of such wildflowers. The only blooms in sight were the almond trees.

Xerces wants to bring those lupine flowers back into the Central Valley, along with other native annual wildflowers and perennial hedgerows, returning the industrialized landscape to something that could support bees throughout the year.

“I don’t think you can replace honeybees [with native species] just because of the number of acres and the intensity” of the farming, Vaughan said. Maybe not entirely, but research published last year in the journal Science found that wild pollinators—including native bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects—were more effective pollinators than honeybees. For crops that rely heavily on managed hives, such as almonds, orchards were found to be less productive when wild insects weren’t in the mix. So turning fallow plots into wildflower meadows could help reduce the number of hives growers need to rent and give the honeybees they bring in more nectar to feed on.

This is another form of the improved bee management Siemens advocates. Instead of moving hives from one monocrop environment to another, where little is nutrition available, beekeepers intersperse the migration with stops in areas that offer a diverse array of wild plants to forage on. Eating nothing but almond-flower pollen and nectar is just as unhealthy for bees as it would be for a person to consume nothing but one food item for weeks on end. The new practice works as a substitute for, and a complement to, the Conservation Reserve Program, which began in 1985 as part of the Farm Bill and pays farmers to allow less productive land to go wild, reducing monoculture and supporting native plant growth and wildlife. The number of acres under CRP has dwindled in recent years, though, as high food prices have enabled farmers to earn more from even marginal land than from the government.

Illustrated by Lauren Wade

Keeping the Hive Alive

After the bees work their way through almonds, fruit, berries, and vegetables, 65 percent of beekeepers truck their hives up to the Dakotas and western Minnesota. “This is where they rest. This is where they try to recover from all of those monocultures, from the dozens of different pesticides that they get exposed to, or the fungicides,” Vaughan said.

That’s where Xerces is working to both conserve and reintroduce native prairie for the bees to forage on. “There’s a growing body of evidence and some data that hasn’t been published yet that shows when you’ve got good habitat in the Great Plains, the bees seem to survive the next winter better,” Vaughan said. The Department of Agriculture is highlighting Midwestern states as key to protecting bee populations too. This morning the federal government announced $8 million in CRP incentives to encourage landowners in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to create pollinator-friendly habitats on their property.

Maybe it’s the apocalyptic narrative of colony collapse disorder that makes it so compelling, or the way it synthesizes disparate, complicated environmental and agricultural issues into one familiar insect, one simple acronym. The dying bees are both a symbol and a symptom of a food production system that prizes yields over anything and everything—even the lives of the pollinators that it depends on. In some unknown combination, (a) eating from a succession of monocultures while (b) being exposed to chemicals and (c) stresses imposed by their keepers plus (d) factors yet to be determined is making bees unhealthy. With the harvests from those same endless fields feeding us, should we wonder what’s contributing to our high obesity rates, diabetes, heart disease, and other nutrition-related health problems? If saving the bees means changing what we provide them—more diverse farms, less pesticide use, smaller-scale agriculture existing alongside wild habitats—we may be doing more than warding off the silent spring. We may be saving ourselves.

Vaughan remains concerned about CCD in the classic sense—more so than anyone I spoke with—but he acknowledges the dual nature the term has taken on.

“I do think that the public perception right now is that colony collapse disorder is what’s killing honeybees,” he said. “Our conversations are about honeybee health in general. It’s definitely broadened beyond colony collapse disorder.”

As Bob Curtis of the Almond Board said, the conversation is becoming more productive too: “Everyone along that chain”—from grower to beekeeper to researcher—“is working more collaboratively than ever before.”

It’s unlikely that the unprecedented public attention and industry collaboration will solve colony collapse disorder in any sense of the term, but it can help us cope with losses that have been ongoing since World War II.

“Pollinator decline has been happening for 60 years, and no one has been paying attention,” vanEngelsdorp said. “Now people are more interested and engaged.”

If fewer bees are dying every year as a result, colony collapse disorder, that harbinger of the bee apocalypse, will be partly to thank.