By KT Tomey
By now, most people have heard that honeybees around the world are struggling with a health problem that is causing a dramatic decline in their numbers. In the past few decades, most US beekeepers have suffered heavy losses. In Michigan, it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to lose 60% of their bees during the winter months. Roger Sutherland, President of Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA) has been keeping honeybees for 42 years, and characterized the first 20 years as “the land of milk and honey.” In the past 20, he has seen as a gradual decline with greater winter losses each year, no matter what he does.
The term “colony collapse disorder” or CCD has made its way into the popular press since 2006 when it was first characterized. Though CCD has wreaked havoc nationally, claiming a quarter of our 2.4 million honeybee hives, CCD has not been much of a problem in Michigan. According to Sutherland, only one case of CCD has been reported in the state. The disorder is defined by several very specific criteria, including a complete absence of adult bees in colonies with little or no build-up of dead bees in or around the colonies, the presence of honey and pollen that are not immediately robbed by other bees, as well as several other conditions. CCD has mainly been an issue among commercial beekeepers, though admittedly formal data collection on backyard hobbyists is lacking.
When asked about the cause of bee deaths, most beekeepers will say that mites are major contributors to the problem, particularly the Verroa and tracheal mites. Prior to the arrival of these parasites in the 1980s, normal winter losses were 10-20% in the Midwest. Another major culprit is Nosema apis a spore-forming parasite that invades the intestinal tracts of adult bees causing nosema disease, a sort of bee diarrhea. Bees are more likely to have a problem if they can’t get out of the hive to “go to the bathroom” during the winter because the lack of ventilation allows spores to build up. A couple of warm days throughout winter months can help to mitigate the impact of this parasite, though it won’t necessarily prevent the disease. On the flip side, if winters are too consistently warm, bees are likely to be more active and eat through their food stores much earlier in the season, leading to a risk of starvation in late winter months.
Diseases are only part of the problem. Many entomologists and beekeepers are pointing their fingers at pesticides such as Merit that are routinely used on domestic crops such as apples. Many apple orchards are sprayed with Merit early in the season and when honeybees are in full pollination mode. And while the American government has yet to act, four European countries have already banned a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids because of their suspected impact on honeybee deaths. These pesticides are systemic chemicals that work their way through the plant, attacking the nervous system of insects that come into contact with it. The substances also get into life-sustaining pollen and nectar.
Our changing food system is also to blame, according to Royal Oak-based organic beekeeper Rich Wieske. Increased demand for pollination services nationwide has lead to dramatic increases in the stress level of bees. A Midwestern beekeeper who rents his bees to pollinate a California crop will pack them onto a truck and travel to the site with the bees in tow. Along the way, bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup and pollen substitute. Continue reading