Overreaction to Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

Growing up on the farm, my father had a few hives so when I recently watched the documentary “What Are the Bees Telling Us?”, it brought back fond childhood memories. For those who want an introduction to beekeeping, it does a fine job on many fronts. However, based largely on opinions of those interviewed, it presents the colony collapse disorder (CCD) as a disaster for the honey industry and indeed for our entire food supply and also lays most of the blame for this phenomenon on monoculture crops, genetically modified food plants, and pesticides. A little research has uncovered some interesting facts that are quite the opposite to many of the claims made in the film.

As background, CCD was first detected late 2006 in the eastern US and then identified elsewhere in the nation and indeed globally soon thereafter. According to the USDA, historically 17-20% of all hives normally suffer serious population reductions to the point of non viability for a variety of reasons but mostly overwintering and parasites. In these instances the dead and still living bees remain in or near the hives. With CCD, the beekeeper might have a normal robust hive and then on her or his next visit find that the whole colony has “buzzed” off and the hive is devoid of living or dead bees. Where they disappear to is a mystery.

During the period from 2006 to 2008 (USDA Statistics) the level of non viable colonies increased to 30% which means that at least one hive out of ten suffered from CCD over this period. In more recent years, the incidence of CCD has been somewhat in decline but nevertheless it still poses a serious problem for the honey industry and is too short a period to yet signal a positive trend.

However, in spite of this very real problem, reports of the death of the honey industry are greatly exaggerated. According to the latest USDA statistics, the average number of hives nationally for the CCD impacted period from 2006 to 2010 was 2.47 million as reported by beekeepers while for the five normal years previous to this, the average number of hives was a near identical 2.52 million. Indeed, the year with the most hives over the entire decade was 2010 with 2.69 million. The yield per hive did drop from an average of 71.0 pounds for the earlier part of the decade to 63.9 pounds from 2006 to 2010. While a decline of 10% is certainly a significant loss in production, it is far from an industry collapse.

Then will humans starve if honey bees are not out there for our food crops? While honey bees are considered to be great pollinators because they are domesticated and can be easily transported by the billions from all over the country to where they are needed for seasonal pollination, there are hundreds of native wild bee populations and other insect species that get the job done as well. Indeed, many do not realize that honey bees are not native to North America – just like cattle, sheep, horses, goats, chickens etc. they were introduced from Europe so they are not a natural part of the native population of insects. There is a written record of honey bees being shipped to Jamestown in 1621.

Are pollinators needed for all our food crops? Surprisingly many of the major food source which are grass family plants such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley and rye are pollinated by the breezes and are not attractive to pollinator insects. Then there are the root crops of carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes etc. which are only really edible when harvested immature before they get to the flowering stage when pollination takes place. Yes, for next years crop a pollinator is needed for seed production but this harvest is only a tiny proportion of the overall dedicated acreage of these vegetables. The same applies for above ground food plants such as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, celery etc. where we consume the plant in its early phases of growth with only a very small proportion of the total planting needed for pollinated seed production. Potatoes are another food crop that does not rely on the intervention of insects. Yes, tree fruits, nuts, tomatoes, peppers, soy beans, canola, and a host of other plants require pollination from honey bees or other insects and would suffer if the honey bee population were to disappear. However, given the reasonably viable honey bee industry that does remain plus all those wild pollinators, the food system does not seem about to collapse as the documentary seemed to indicate.

Surprisingly in recent years since 2006, in spite of the presence of CCD, apples and almonds, the two crops most dependant on honey bee pollination, based in the number of hives rented for this purpose, have shown dramatic increases in yields per acre. According to USDA statistics; for almonds the yield average per acre was 1691 pounds for the period 2000 to 2005 and an impressive 2330 pounds for the later years up to and including estimates for 2012 – an increase of close to 33%. Of note is that every year in the later period, yields exceed all previous annual records. Similarly for apples, the early period had a yield of 24,100 pounds per acre while for the 2006 and later time frame, the yield was up by 12% to 2700 pounds. While advanced farming technology made the increased yields possible; all pollinators, and in particular honey bees, stepped up to the plate and delivered their traditional part of the bargain. This fact is totally counterintuitive to the doomsday crowd’s concern that our food supply in jeopardy.

Then what causes the bee colonies to collapse? As stated previously, the documentary blamed monocultures, farm chemicals and genetically modified food plants. Without getting too technical, scientists have listed about ten possible causes including these three. Many of these researchers are of the opinion that perhaps several of these factors are at play at the same time, depending on the location of the hives and conditions particular to that time and place. Thus before the knee jerk reaction of blaming conventional agriculture, there are a few fundamental facts that do not make these farming practices the “smoking gun” causing CCD.

On monocultures, they have been around for a century – in the 1930s, there were 20 million more acres of corn planted than in recent years. The peak number of acres farmed for all crops was in 1950 – while today the total acreage in crops is about 85% of the level of the middle of the last century. Furthermore for every acre of cropland in the US there are four others free from cultivation with a great variety of natural habitats, many of which are extremely attractive to honey bees. Post 2006, there has been no significant negative change in the landscape.

Regarding GMO crops, pollen from corn which is resistant to certain insect pests is considered to be a potential culprit. However, in a peer reviewed study conducted by the University of Maryland scientist working with normal healthy populations both in the open field and in the labs demonstrated that exposed to GM corn pollen had no negative impact on honey bees. Other published peer reviewed studies report similar results with few, if any, serious research projects having demonstrated the opposite. However, for non GMO corn requiring insecticide treatment including pyrethrins used in organic farming, the bees were seriously impacted.

On insecticides, in a 2007 survey of beekeepers by Bee Alert Technology Inc, only 4% of serious colony issues were caused by pesticides so this claim in the documentary does not seem to be fully justified if the actual practitioners caring for the bees do not think it to be a serious issue. In any event, as honey bees like to forage within only a one mile radius or less of the hive (they can go greater distances but honey gathering becomes inefficient), beekeepers with the above mentioned option to seek out all sorts of suitable natural habitat can avoid intensive agriculture if they wish unless they are involved with dedicated crop pollination efforts. Yes, insecticides definitely kill bees, but good beekeepers know how to keep their portable hives out of harm’s way and if they have concerns about GMO corn, usually there is no need or purpose to place colonies near a cornfield.

Bottom line: CCD is a significant challenge facing the honey industry and for some individual producers, the impact is devastating. However, contrary to popular opinion, while hives collapse, the industry remains largely intact, food production does not seem to be threatened, and advanced farming practices do not appear to play a significant role as the culprit. Perhaps there is a bit of overreaction to the issue.