Friday, January 11, 2008

Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Where Have All the Bees Gone?"

By Becke Davis

"Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of the tree, put his head between his paws and began to think.

First of all he said to himself: "That buzzing-noise means something. You don't get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without its meaning something. If there's a buzzing-noise, somebody's making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you're a bee."

Then he thought another long time, and said: "And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey."
And then he got up, and said: "And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it."

Ever since A.A. Milne's tales of Winnie-the-Pooh were published more than half a century ago, Pooh's adventures with bees have made the honey bee more of a familiar face than a menace with a sharp sting. In the real world, some people are concerned that declining bee populations may mean that the only knowledge of bees future generations have will be in the pages of books.

Where have the bees gone, and how does their decline affect us? While the average person knows that bees make honey, they may not be aware that bee play an important role in the food supply. According to a report in Science Daily, "Bees. . .are essential for the pollination of over 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide , with the economic value of these agricultural products placed at more than $14.6 billion in the U.S. In addition to agricultural crops, honey bees also pollinate many native plants within the ecosystem." 1

Newspapers across the country have been buzzing with concern about the bee shortage. The Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY noted, "Among the hardest hit nationally are commercial beekeepers who transport thousands of hives across the country by tractor-trailer to pollinate orchards and crops, sometimes at a rental rate of more than $100 a hive. . .Melons and squash, some vegetables, sunflowers, almonds and many fruit and berry crops need bee pollination. Alfafa grown for seed also requires pollination by bees, though pollination may be shared by other bee varieties." 2 Other crops pollinated by bees include apples, peaches, pears, blueberries, cranberries, nectarines, cherries, strawberries, pumpkins and broccoli.

The Los Angeles Times discussed a possible cause for the bee decline, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD): "A fungus that caused widespread loss of bee colonies in Europe and Asia may be playing a crucial role in the mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder that is wiping out bees across the United States. . .Researchers have been struggling for months to explain the disorder, and the new findings provide the first solid evidence pointing to a potential cause." 3 According to the article, the fungus is a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae that has been found in affected hives and also in hives where some bees survived. The mystery has not been solved definitively, though, and the article notes that where the fungus was found there were also "two other fungi and half a dozen viruses in the dead bees."

The bee population has been affected by diseases in the past, including the Varroa mite which decimated many bees in the latter part of the 20th century. Other causes of bee decline are weather conditions and exposure to pesticides. Although it is difficult to know the exact numbers of bees that have been lost in the past, it appears that the current loss of bees is without precedence. One estimate indicates that as much as a quarter of this country's 2.4 million commercial colonies have been lost since last fall.

The recent reports suggesting that CCD might play an primary role in the current bee decline has only added to the controversy, says the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Widespread media reports about CCD have fueled rumors and much conjecture over the cause of the disorder -- including the proliferation of cell phone towers, genetically modified crops, certain pesticides and global warming. Scientists generally have dismissed cell phone and global warming theories, but are studying other factors such as viruses, mites, mite control chemicals, the pesticide imidacloprid and other possible toxins or microbes. They do note regard CCD as a human health issue." 4

Determining the cause of the bee decline is easier said than done, in this instance. The Chicago Tribune reports, "Across the nation, honeybees are vanishing by the billions, a medical mystery with few clues. Because unlike past die-offs, corpses aren't littering the hives. Instead, the adult bees fly off to work and never come home, leaving behind a queen, perhaps some freshly laid eggs and a handful of overburdened young adults. . .One theory is that the bees leave the nest and aren't able to orient or navigate their way back, so they die in the fields." 5

The bee decline is serious enough to have warranted a session of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture on the topic of CCD in honey bee colonies in the United States. Among those addressing the House on this topic were Professor Mary R. Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Diana Cox-Foster, a professor in the Department of Entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. These sessions took place on March 29, 2007.

Dr. Cox-Foster observed, "The exact impact of CCD across the United States is difficult to gauge since essential data on the number of bee keepers, number of colonies, and death rates are not measured. A preliminary nationwide survey, initiated last month by the Apiary Inspectors of America, suggests that a 17% loss of colonies is considered normal, which is astonishing, given that one would be hard pressed to find another agricultural commodity sustaining losses of this magnitude on a regular basis. The same survey also found that approximately one-quarter of responding beekeepers suffered CCD. . .It is now clear that CCD is a problem facing all bee keepers; it will have a major impact. . .Researchers at North Carolina State, University of Illinois and Texas A&M are beginning to ask how genetic diversity in bee populations correlates with CCD and resistance traits. Developing new resistant strains of bees for commercial production may be essential to the future of beekeeping." 6

Dr. Berenbaum summarizes these concerns: "Over the past two decades, concern has grown around the world about apparent reductions in the abundance of pollinators of all descriptions, with declines reported on no fewer than four continents. During this same time period in the U.S., the western honey bee Apis mellifera, the world's premier managed pollinator species, experienced dramatic population declines, primarily as a result of the accidental introduction in the 1980s of two bloodsucking parasitic mites. Between 1947 and 2005, colony numbers nationwide decline by over 40%, from 5.9 million to 2.4 million. . .Even before CCD came to light, our committee estimated that, if honey bee numbers continue to decline at the rates documented from 1989 to 1996, managed honey bees will cease to exist by 2035. . .Human technological innovation has not, in most cases, replaced or even improved upon animal pollinators and is unlikely to do so in the immediate future. 'The birds and the bees' remain an essential fact of life; as long as plants depend on pollinators, so will people and it behooves us to shepherd them wisely." 7


File Name: Bees.doc
Word Count: 1,245


1 "Bee Colony Collapse Disorder and Viral Disease Incidence Under Investigation," Science Daily, April 24, 2007, adapted from a news release issued by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

2, 4 "Scientists at a loss as bees disappear across the nation," by Byron Crawford, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, May 11, 2007

3 "Experts may have found what's bugging the bees," by Jia-Rui Chong and Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2007

5 "Loss of bees threatens a fatal sting for us all," by Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2007

6 Prepared Testimony of Diana Cox-Foster, Professor, Department of Entomology, The Pennsylvania State University, before the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture on Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bee Colonies in the United States," March 29, 2007

7 Statement of May R. Berenbaum, Professor and Head, Department of Entomology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Chair, Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America Board on Life Sciences and Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council and The National Academies before the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture on Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bee Colonies in the United States, March 29, 2007,

First published in The Landscape Contractor magazine, July 2007
Photo courtesy


Nancy said...

Thank you for this valuable information. We have been wondering about the lack of bees this year. Our grapefruit tree and lilacs normally would be buzzing with them by now. We pray our world's scientists can come up with a solution to this serious problem.

Treethyme said...

The weird thing is that every time they think they've figured out what's causing the die-off of bees, some other reason crops up. It's a real mystery, and a loss to us all.