Colony Collapse Disorder, mites, chemicals may result in lasting effects on bee populations
Colony Collapse Disorder, mites, chemicals may result in lasting effects on Bee populations
“I think there’s this mythological thing with #bees,” Ayala said. “They’ve been around so long and cultures view them very differently. I think that had something to do with it to. (I wanted to) explore why they are so magnificent.”
Over the last several years, #beekeepers around the world like Ayala have tried to understand the cause of the steady decrease in U.S. bee populations. Currently, chemicals like #neonicotinoids are being blamed for the decline—otherwise known as colony collapse disorder. However, #Varroa Mites might be a greater cause for concern.
Colony collapse disorder
There has been a large buzz around the declining number of honey bees since 2006, when the United States Department of Agriculture observed losses between 30 and 90 percent of beekeepers’ hives nationally.
These losses have been attributed to colony collapse disorder, which is, according to the USDA, a “syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present.”
Despite the worry of dropping bee populations, Melinda Stafford, supervisor of the Boise State Bee-Team, hasn’t seen major changes in the population of the bees on the roof of the SUB. She explained the decline in bee hives over the last several years might be part of a historical trend seen every couple decades.
“(CCD) is this hot topic around #beekeeping, but it’s kind of rare and unpredictable. And it’s not happening on a common level among hobbyist beekeepers—which is those of us with just a couple of hives,” Stafford said. “If you look at history, there’s been ups and downs with the amount of colonies.“
According to an article by Peter Loring Borst published in March 2015, a fear of bee population decline was also observed in the 1950s and 1970s.
“FAO statistics show the number of managed bee hives in the world rising from 50 million in 1960 to more than 80 million today,” Borst wrote. “The fact, plainly not understood by the general public, is that losing colonies of bees is just the way of life for beekeepers. “
According to Ian Robertson, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, CCD could result in under-#pollination of crops across the nation and harm food security of specific crops.
“The pollination is needed to produce seed sets so you can produce crops,” Robertson said. “If you’re under pollinating, the crop yield is lower. When yield is lower, the availability versus demand changes, and that causes prices to rise.”
Neronicotinoids and other chemicals
Although for several months hype pointed to neonicotinoids playing a large role in colony collapse disorder, several beekeepers have come forth to explain the issue is more complicated and involves several factors including mites, other chemicals and stress on the honey bees.
“Neonicotinoids are just one piece of the puzzle that beekeepers, scientists, the EPA and the FDA are all looking at in regard to how they affect the overall concerns that people have about beekeeping these days,” Stafford said. “There are a lot of other known parasites, diseases and problems that are killing bees.”
Stafford urged students to consider the impact of the pesticides they use in their garden because they can also be harmful to honey bees.
“The little choices we make—like spraying the dandilions in your yard with roundup—begins to take a larger role then you ever thought it would,” Stafford said.
According to Stafford, Australia has been using neonicotinoids for several years now and has been unaffected by CCD. She explained there’s been a relatively small amount of research done linking neonicotinoids to CCD.
“There’s a lot of research to be done that will yield answers to us, but I think at this point the scientific studies I’ve read aren’t making a clear connection between neonicotinoids and bees struggling,” Stafford said.
A #honey bee’s immune system is weakened by chemicals like neonicotinoids, according to Robertson. These chemicals make it harder for honey bees to fight off pathogens and “disrupts their ability to navigate.”
“While lots of people disagree over what causes colony collapse disorder, the general consensus is it’s a lot of complex interactions,” Robertson said. “The neonicotinoids created through immune suppression may make them vulnerable to something call varroa mites.”
According to Stafford, the Boise State Bee-Team’s hives have been the most harmed by Varroa Mites, an external parasite that attacks bees.
Local beekeeper, Steve Sweet and member of the Treasure Valley Beekeepers club—an organization of veteran beekeepers in Boise who are currently paring with the Bee-Team to help teach the students—Varroa Mites spread to the U.S. in 1988. He said it took about three years before he saw an infestation in his hives.
“I would say the Varroa Mite is the number one impactor of the bee decline,” Stafford said. ”The Varroa Mite weakens the immune system of the bees to the point where they can’t fight off basic conditions, basic illnesses. It makes their immune systems weak enough that it makes pesticides—a small problem—a lot bigger.”
Sweet explained Australia is currently the only continent in the world that doesn’t have Varroa Mites. He said there is currently a controversy among hobbyist beekeepers about treating bees for insecticide.
“Just casting these guys out and saying ‘you’re on your own’ sounds really nice, but a whole contingent of folks say, ‘That’s pretty cruel to let the bees die when you could have helped them,’” said Sweet.
According to Sweet, without treatment, honeybee hives infested with Varroa Mites will die out within three years.
The importance of bees
“Honey bees are a very important part of our agricultural industry,” Robertson, said. “They’re big business for some. Pollination by honeybees represents a huge portion of the crops that we consume—roughly a third of our foods are related to honey bee pollination.”
That means about $15 billion worth of American agriculture is pollinated by beehives. Hobbyist beekeepers play little role in that pollination, Sweet said, because generally one commercial beekeeper in Idaho “would have more hives than all of us hobbyist beekeepers together.”
Despite never breaking even selling his honey and wax at local markets, Sweet finds taking care of his bees enjoyable.
“Beekeeping is more than taking honey from the bees,” Sweet said. “It’s getting out here and seeing what is blooming, seeing if the queen is healthy and nurturing these bees.”
Ayala echoes this sentiment, explaining beekeeping brings students back to nature. She feels hobbyists keep bees to “observe the way we’re connected to them.”
“We show that you don’t have to necessarily be studying environmental studies or anything. You don’t need to be specialized in those areas to become a beekeeper,” Ayala said. “They’re so important to our fresh produce and our food resources. Maybe people want to keep them to understand their role and what it is to us.”