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by Robyn Braun
Honeybees are the most important pollinator in commercial agriculture today. The honeybee is responsible for pollinating 80% of the world’s crops. Two thirds of our food relies on honeybees at some point.
I talked with Kim Weaver, a beekeeper in Invermere, Alberta. His honeybees pollinate blueberry crops. “The farmers pay me to pollinate their crop. The bees are in there doing their job and farmers can increase their crop by 100, 200, 300 percent.”
Today though these important partners in our agricultural processes are in danger. In December 2006 when large portions of the bee populations in North America suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared, a group of scientists coined the term colony collapse disorder (CCD) to describe the cluster of different disorders with which the bees appeared to be suffering. During the past 6 ½ years instances of the disorder have occurred across Europe as well as in North and South America. Colony collapse disorder occurs when a hive’s adult worker bee population disappears. The brood and the queen are left without the care and tending they need to survive.
There is debate in the scientific community over whether or not the term colony collapse disorder is confusing, because it is a blanket term that covers several problems. No one really knows the exact pathway of the disorder and scientists agree that several factors are at play.
Kim Weaver told me about the varroa mite, one of the factors hurting bee colonies these days.
“The mites are like a flea. They get on the bees’ backs and they suck the juice out of them. It makes the bees weak and when they fly out and then they’re too weak to get back. That’s how most bees die.”
A fungus called Nosema also plagues bees. This fungus affects bees’ digestive systems as well as their wings. Nosema can kill entire colonies.
Finally, specific pesticides, called the neonicitinoids, which are aimed at insect pests also affect bees even though they are not the target insects. Persistent exposure to even low doses of these pesticides will disrupt the bees’ nervous system. Worker bees are often left paralyzed or, if not, they leave the hive but are unable to find their way home.
There are several consequences if a forager doesn’t return to the hive. First, the colony is left without food. Second, the bees remaining in the hive have no information about where to find food sources. And finally, losing adult foragers disrupts the colony’s lifecycle. When all these problems come together the health of the bee colony becomes so run down that entire bee colonies collapse or disappears.
Colony collapse disorder is still largely a mystery to scientists and so it’s not entirely clear what individuals can do to help. But you can buy local honey to support your local beekeeper.
Robyn Braun owns a science communications company precisely so that she can research and write about all kinds of science for all kinds of audiences.