Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a serious problem threatening the health of honey bees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States. Despite a number of claims in the general and scientific media, a cause or causes of CCD have not been identified by researchers.
The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s internal research agency, is leading several efforts into possible CCD causes and striving to enhance overall honey bee health by improving bee management practices, as well as studying honey bee diseases and parasites and how best to control them. In addition, a number of other Federal agencies and State departments of agriculture, universities, and private companies are conducting studies to seek the cause or causes of CCD.
CCD HistoryIn October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. While colony losses are not unexpected, especially over the winter, this magnitude of losses was unusually high.
The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.
This is not the first time that beekeepers are being faced with unexplained losses. The scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances—in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know for sure if those problems were caused by the same agents as CCD.
There have also been unusual colony losses before. In 1903, in the Cache Valley in Utah, 2000 colonies were lost to an unknown “disappearing disease” after a “hard winter and a cold spring.” More recently, in 1995-96, Pennsylvania beekeepers lost 53 percent of their colonies without a specific identifiable cause.
In June 2007, ARS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA’s extramural research grants agency, co-chaired a workshop of scientists and stakeholders to develop a Colony Collapse Disorder Action Plan. This plan identified areas where more information was needed and developed a research priority list for additional research projects related to finding the cause/causes of CCD.
Why Should the Public Care About What Happens to Honey Bees? Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination. Commercial production of many specialty crops like almonds and other tree nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables depend on pollination by honey bees. These are the foods that give our diet diversity, flavor, and nutrition.
Honey bees are not native to the New World; they came from Europe with the first settlers. There are native pollinators in the United States, but honey bees are more prolific and easier to manage on a commercial level for pollination of a wide variety of crops. Almonds, for example, are completely dependent on honey bees for pollination. In California, the almond industry requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States.
U.S. Honey Bee LossesThe total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.5 million today. At the same time, the call for hives to provide pollination services has continued to increase. This means honey bee colonies are being transported over longer distances than ever before.
Declines in honey bee colony health were exacerbated in the 1980s with the arrival of new pathogens and pests. The arrival of Varroa and tracheal mites into the United States during the 1990s created additional stresses on honey bees.
Colony losses from CCD are a very serious problem for beekeepers. Annual losses from the winter of 2006-2011 averaged about 33 percent each year, with a third of these losses attributed to CCD by beekeepers. The winter of 2011-2012 was an exception, when total losses dropped to 22 percent.
A 1-year drop is too short a time period to count as definitive improvement in honey bee colony survivorship. At least 2 to 3 years of consistently lower loss percentages is necessary before it is possible to be sure that CCD is on the decline.
The decrease in colony losses could be due to a number of different factors, among them:
If losses continue at the 33 percent level, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs. Now is the time for research into the cause and treatment of CCD before CCD becomes an agricultural crisis.
A survey of honey bee colonies revealed no consistent pattern in pesticide levels between healthy and CCD-affected colonies when pollen, bees, and beeswax were tested for the presence of 170 pesticides. The most commonly found pesticide in that study was coumaphos, which is used to treat honey bees for Varroa mites.
The pesticide class neonicotinoids (clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and imidacloprid) has been accused of being the cause of CCD. The neonicotinoids were developed in the mid-1990s in large part because they showed reduced toxicity to honey bees, compared with previously used organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.
In 2008, Germany revoked the registration of the neonicotinoid clothianidin for use on seed corn after an incident that resulted in the die-off of hundreds of nearby honey bees colonies. Investigation into the incident revealed that the die-off was caused by a combination of factors, including the failure to use a polymer seed coating known as a “sticker”: weather conditions that resulted in late planting of corn while nearby canola crops were in bloom, attracting honey bees; use of a particular type of air-driven equipment used to sow the seeds, which blew clothianidin-laden dust off the seeds and into the air as the seeds were ejected from the machine into the ground; dry and windy conditions at the time of planting, which blew the dust into the nearby canola fields where honey bees were foraging; and a higher application rate than had been authorized was used to treat for a severe root worm infestation.
Several studies that reported a negative impact on honey bees by neonicotinoids relied on large, unrealistic doses and gave bees no other choice for pollen, and therefore did not reflect risk to honey bees under real world conditions. Nor have the studies demonstrated a direct connection or correlation to CCD.
There have been scientific findings that imply that neonicotinoids have sublethal effects on honey bees at approved doses and exposures. ARS scientists and other researchers are looking into whether such sublethal effects may correlate with CCD or other bee health problems and whether they could be a contributing cause of CCD.
ARS held a workshop with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early 2010 to discuss how potential sublethal effects could be documented summarized in Pesticide Risk Assessment for Pollinators: Summary of a SETAC Pellston Workshop.
ARS researchers also have been analyzing samples from healthy and CCD-struck colonies and applying a variety of stressors from the four categories of possible causes to colonies in hopes of provoking a colony response that duplicates CCD.
While a number of potential causes have been championed by a variety of researchers and interest groups, none of them have stood up to detailed scrutiny. Every time a claim is made of finding a “smoking gun,” further investigation has not been able to make the leap from a correlation to cause-and-effect. Other times, not even a scientific correlation has been demonstrated in the study claiming to have found “the cause” of CCD.
Researchers have concluded that no one factor is the cause of CCD. Most likely, CCD is caused by multiple factors. It is not possible to know at this time if all CCD incidents are due to the same set of factors or if the factors follow the same sequence in every case.
One explanation for CCD being studied is that a perfect storm of environmental stresses may unexpectedly weaken colonies, leading to collapse when the colonies are exposed to the additional stress of a pathogen, parasite, and/or pesticide. Stress, in general, compromises the immune system of bees (and other social insects) and may disrupt their social system, making colonies more susceptible to disease.
Studies are being conducted by ARS scientists and collaborators to look at the combined impact of two or more factors on honey bees—most recently the impact of exposure to the neonicotinoid imidacloprid and Nosema. While the dual exposure indicated some sublethal effects on individual honey bees, the overall health of the colony did not show an adverse effect.
Cell Phones and CCDDespite a great deal of attention having been paid to the idea, neither cell phones nor cell phone towers have been shown to have any connection to CCD or poor honey bee health.
Originally, the idea was provoked by the media making a connection between CCD and a very small study done in Germany. But that study looked at whether a particular type of base station for cordless phones could affect honey bee homing systems. However, despite all the attention that this study has received, the base station has nothing to do with CCD. Stefan Kimmel, the researcher who conducted the study and wrote the paper, e-mailed The Associated Press to say that there is “no link between our tiny little study and the CCD-phenomenon … Anything else said or written is a lie.”
In addition, apiaries are often located in rural areas, where cell phone coverage can be spotty. This makes cell phones or cell towers unlikely culprits.
Best Recommendation for BeekeepersSince little is known for sure about the cause(s) of CCD, mitigation must be based on improving general honey bee health and habitat and countering known mortality factors by using best management practices. This includes supplemental feeding in times of nectar/pollen scarcity.
Best Recommendations for the PublicThe best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.
In addition, the public can plant pollinator-friendly plants—plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, joe-pye weed, and other native plants. (For more information, visit www.nappc.org.)
Another reason to love bees: they might be able to help us fight cancer.
While venom isn’t usually known as a friendly thing, new research shows that venom from bees, snakes and scorpions could potentially be used to fight certain forms of cancer. While you wouldn’t go and inject someone with a dose of venom, which could have lethal effects, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that if they isolated specific proteins in the venom, these could be used in a safe way to block tumor growth.
“We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory,” study author Dipanjan Pan of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a statement. “These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue.”
Previous studies have shown the potential power of venom, but because of the potentially very dangerous side effects of venom injection – damage to nerve cells, for example – hat power couldn’t be properly harnessed. That’s what makes this new research so exciting.
The toxins in question are peptide toxins. The researchers made a synthetic version in the lab, then injected it into the tiny nanoparticles. “The peptide toxins we made are so tightly packed within the nanoparticle that they don’t leach out when exposed to the bloodstream and cause side effects,” Pan said.
Bee on flower image via Shutterstock.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and University of Maryland have found that low levels of pesticide exposure from crop pollination make honey bees more susceptible to the deadly gut parasite Nosema ceranae, contributing to declines in bee populations.
The study’s findings, released July 24 in the journal PLoSONE, expand on a recent report released by the USDA that found parasites, disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure as synergistic factors in the observable nationwide honey bee decline, but focused on technological stopgap measures without questioning the sustainability of widespread systemic neonicotinoid pesticide use. Adding urgency to USDA’s research, another study released July 22 in the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences shows that pollinator losses can have a detrimental effects on plant reproduction. Continue reading “New Studies Confirm Pesticide Exposure Major Contributor to Declining Honey Bee Populations”
The study, Disease Associations Between Honeybees and Bumblebees as a Threat to Wild Pollinators, suggests that managed, highly-dense populations of honey bees, are breeding grounds for pathogens which may then be transmitted to bumblebee populations. But unlike honey bees, infected bumblebees are much more affected by the disease, with their lives shortened by six full days.
“To put it into context, in the field a bumblebee worker lives 21 days,” said co-author Mark Brown, PhD., of Royal Holloway, University of London. “For every bee that has this virus, you’re losing about a third or a quarter of all the food it would bring back to the nest to help the nest grow.” Additionally, while honey bee hives have tens of thousands of workers, bumblebee hives have only one hundred at most.
The study, underlines the importance of threatened wild pollinators—including bumblebees—which are estimated to provide $3 billion in pollination services to crops such as tomato, blueberry, melon, soybean, cucumber, squash, apple, peach and bell pepper in the U.S.
Previous studies have demonstrated that bumblebees can carry DWV, but none had mapped the distribution of infected and healthy honey bee and bumblebee populations. Researchers here discovered that roughly one-third of honey bees collected are infected with DWV and 11 percent of bumblebees carry the virus. By mapping out the distribution of disease presence, researchers found significant overlap, which suggest disease transmission between the two pollinator species.
“A geographical patterning provides us with the information that transmission is occurring among these animals—they are sharing parasite strains,” said Dr. Brown. The infection could likely be spread when bumblebees forage on flowers already visited by infected honey bees, or by raiding competitors interested in stealing nectar. “We cannot say it definitively, but because of the epidemiology, the most likely explanation is that the honeybees are acting as the source of the virus for the bumblebees,” said Dr. Brown.
The research adds to a body of knowledge demonstrating the range of threats that native and managed pollinators face. Underlying these threats is the persistent use of pesticides which weakens pollinator immunes systems making them more susceptible to parasites, pathogens and diseases. One study on pesticides in honey bee hives, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that honey bees exposed to a typical fungicide were more than three times more likely to become infected when exposed to the parasite Nosema, compared to control bees which were not fed contaminated pollen.
Researchers here are particularly interested in further investigating the role of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are implicated as a driving cause of colony collapse disorder. “If bumblebees were exposed to neonicotinoids and had the same effect, you would expect the bumblebee viral load to be going through the roof. This is something we are hoping to test later,” said Dr. Brown.
Yesterday, more than 500,000 signatures were delivered to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, urging the nation’s top-ranking environmental leader to protect bees and other pollinators.
The date marks the one-year anniversary of the lawsuit filed against EPA by beekeepers, food, and environmental groups, including Beyond Pesticides, over the continued allowance of two bee-toxic pesticides: clothianidin and thiamethoxam. It also marks the two-year anniversary of the emergency legal petition filed against the agency on this same issue. The EPA has yet to take serious action to address dramatic bee declines.
The pesticides in question are a class of systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids. Despite numerous studies linking neonicotinoids with bee kills, colony collapse and weakened immune systems, the EPA continues to operate under an alarmingly slow registration review process for these insecticides, one that extends to 2018. Honey bees are responsible for producing one in every three bites of food we eat, but research increasingly shows they are being harmed by the indiscriminate use of neonicotinoids, both alone and in combination with other pesticides. It is the job of the EPA to review such pesticides for safety and to take action if they are found to be harmful.
“We call on EPA Administrator McCarthy to lead the agency in a new direction by immediately suspending all outdoor uses of neonicotinoid pesticides. Bees can’t wait four more years for EPA to make a decision. If the agency acts now, we can save these vital pollinators before it’s too late,” said the groups in a joint statement.
“Beekeepers are losing colonies at an unprecedented rate—the losses are too extreme to keep up with, and our entire industry is at risk of collapse unless federal action is taken,” said New York beekeeper Jim Doan, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who will be discussing bee declines on Capitol Hill next week. “Convening conferences and changing pesticide labels is lip service and window dressing to the issue, but has no substance.”
In the absence of federal action, several states have taken action independently to introduce legislation that would suspend uses of neonicotinoids. California, Minnesota and New York are among the states considering action in their state legislatures. And this month, Eugene, OR, became the first city in the country to ban the use of neonicotinoids on city property. Congress is also pushing to curb the use of neonicotinoids through the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, introduced by Rep. Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR).
In Dec. 2013, Europe implemented a two-year moratorium on the most problematic neonicotinoids in order to protect bee health. This move came after several European countries had already implemented bans, with no economic costs to farmers or consumers.
“We are asking EPA to follow the EU’s lead and recognize that the risks are unacceptably high. Pollination services provided by honey bees and other, even less studied, wild bees are far too important for agriculture and ecosystems to treat them in a non-precautionary manner. Many thousands of beekeeper livelihoods, the future viability of commercial beekeeping and the crops relying on these pollination services, estimated at $20-30 billion annually, are potentially in jeopardy,” the groups said.
Center for Food Safety released a scientific literature review which reveals that neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments offer little benefit, do not increase crop yields and cause widespread environmental and economic damage. In particular, neonicotinoids have been implicated in bee population declines and colony collapse. While some fear that crop yields will suffer without the use of neonicotinoids, the study demonstrates that their benefits do not outweigh the costs.
The authors examined 19 peer-reviewed studies of the relationship between neonicotinoid treatments and actual yields of major U.S. crops. Eight studies found that neonicotinoid treatments did not provide any significant yield benefit, while 11 studies showed inconsistent benefits. The studies corroborate evidence from European countries that were able to maintain crop yields even after neonicotinoid bans. The review cites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failure to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis and calls on the EPA to suspend seed treatment product registrations.
“The environmental and economic costs of pesticide seed treatments are well-known. What we learned in our thorough analysis of the peer-reviewed science is that their claimed crop yield benefit is largely illusory, making their costs all the more tragic,” said Peter Jenkins, co-author of the report and consulting attorney for Center for Food Safety.
Seeds of commercial crops in the U.S., particularly corn and soybeans, are widely treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, ostensibly to protect emerging seedlings from pests and thus improve yields. Almost all of the corn seed and approximately half of the soybeans in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides known to have acute and chronic effects on honey bees and other pollinator species and are considered a major factor in colony collapse. Neonicotinoid pesticides are also slow to break down, so they can build up in areas where they are applied. They contaminate surface water, ground water and soil, endangering not only pollinators, but also other beneficial species that inhabit these ecosystems.
Pesticide seed treatments are regulated by the EPA under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which directs the agency to evaluate whether the use of any pesticide proposed for registration presents “any unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits.”
“Their impact on honey bees, other pollinators and on the nation’s beekeepers is especially troubling. Because the available scientific studies show little if any benefit, EPA should suspend all neonicotinoid seed treatment product registrations as required under FIFRA until the costs and benefits are adequately reviewed,” said Jenkins.
“Although there is no doubt that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to insects, this does not mean they are routinely effective in pest management. In many contexts they provide no benefit, and in others they are not a cost-effective option. The bottom line is these toxic insecticides are being unnecessarily applied to seeds in most cases, while harming pollinators and the environment,” said Sarah Stevens, researcher and co-author of the report.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 10 million bee hives have been lost since 2006, representing a $2 billion cost to beekeepers. Honey bees are responsible for much of the pollination required for agricultural production. USDA estimates pollinator services to be worth $20-30 billion annually. Further, honey and bee products have also suffered with 2013 the lowest U.S. honey production ever recorded. That was a $38 million drop since 2012. The most significantly decline in honeybee production has occurred in the Corn Belt where neonicotinoid use is highest.
“The economic costs of neonicotinoid seed treatments are real,” added Stevens. “In addition to paying for unnecessary treatments, the overuse of these pesticides has led to significant costs to society at large.”
Two New Studies Address the Ongoing Plight of Honeybees
EcoWatch | May 12, 2014 4:40 pm | Comments
Once again, new reports have surfaced providing more evidence that the destructive use of pesticides in large-scale agriculture must be stopped in order to protect the plummeting global bee population due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
There is an urgent need to stop the widespread use of bee-killing pesticides. Photo credit: Greenpeace / Fred Dott
The first study, from Harvard School of Public Health, found that two widely used neonicotinoids appear to significantly harm honeybee colonies over the winter, particularly colder winters. The study—which replicated a 2012 study from the same research group, that came to a similar conclusion—links low doses of the neonicotinoids imidacloprid and clothianidin to CCD and finds that “bees from six of the 12 neonicotinoid-treated colonies had abandoned their hives and were eventually dead with symptoms resembling CCD,” while those colonies not exposed to the neonics survived their hibernation. Continue reading “Two New Studies Address the Ongoing Plight of Honeybees”
The DRP has been studying the issues for five years (a study that was supposed to take two years under the current law) without taking meaningful action. AB 1789 extends the study window and the time frame for taking action another six years.
Nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice is representing a coalition of groups—Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides—which has filed a challenge in the California Superior Court for the County of Alameda, asking the DPR to ban the pesticides prior to the study completion.
Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie said:
We’re disappointed that California legislators have just passed a bill that allows the California agencies to do nothing about widespread bee die-offs until 2020. While bee colonies are collapsing at historic rates and a huge California growing economy depends on these pollinators, we don’t have time to kick this problem that far down the road. We urge Gov. Brown to veto this bill and get to work with the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation and commit to addressing this problem much sooner than 2020.
Since honeybees are essential to the pollination of many crops, including California’s lucrative almond crop, and California is the leading agriculture state in the U.S., the loss of honeybees there would have a widespread impact on U.S. food production.
Study Finds 8 Fracking Chemicals Toxic to Humans
Tim Radford, Climate News Network | August 19, 2014 8:54 am | Comments
Fracking is once again in trouble. Scientists have found that what gets pumped into hydrocarbon-rich rock as part of the hydraulic fracture technique to release gas and oil trapped in underground reservoirs may not be entirely healthy.
Deep concerns: gas wells at a fracking site in the Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Gerry Dincher via Wikimedia Commons
Environmental engineer William Stringfellow and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of the Pacific told the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco that they scoured databases and reports to compile a list of the chemicals commonly used in fracking.
Such additives, which are necessary for the extraction process, include: acids to dissolve minerals and open up cracks in the rock; biocides to kill bacteria and prevent corrosion; gels and other agents to keep the fluid at the right level of viscosity at different temperatures; substances to prevent clays from swelling or shifting; distillates to reduce friction; acids to limit the precipitation of metal oxides. Continue reading “Study Finds 8 Fracking Chemicals Toxic to Humans”