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The demise of colony collapse disorder

Nothing attracts the press like a doomsday calamity with a scary name. And once they latch on, they can’t let go. Warnings about this particular scourge continue to circulate in the popular press. Meanwhile, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who helped name the thing, told Wired that he hasn’t seen a case of CCD in five years.

To this day I still get a lot of questions about CCD, but nearly all of them come from non-beekeepers who want to know how to save the bees. I can’t blame these people for being concerned: since the catastrophic nature of the story continues to sell papers, articles about it routinely reappear.

It’s clear that many people don’t understand what CCD was all about because they write to say their carpenter bees died of colony collapse, or the bees that drilled holes in their driveway succumbed to colony collapse. My argument, that those kinds of bees don’t live in colonies, does nothing to dissuade them.

Where did CCD go?

Many scientists spent a lot of time and money looking for something that, in my opinion, didn’t exist. That’s to say, they couldn’t find a discreet causative agent. No smoking gun, like a pathogen or toxin, could be found that linked the dead colonies together. But they were dead, nevertheless.

When you look at history, recurring catastrophic bee losses make a regular appearance, having been called names like spring dwindle, fall dwindle, or some-other-kind-of dwindle. But collapse sounds much more final than dwindle, far more graphic and deadly. But in truth, the total number of bee colonies in North America is rising, not falling, and although honey bees have problems, they are not even close to being endangered.

I became motivated to write about colony collapse after being interviewed by a 13-year-old student from Seattle. Isabella had some prescient questions about CCD, so I decided to tell you what I told her.

The perfect storm

It is my belief that what we call CCD was a confluence of factors that all came together in 2006, the year CCD was “discovered” and named. Some commercial beekeepers lost many colonies that year, and indeed it was a devastating blow to them. I don’t want to trivialize their losses.

But rather than being from a single cause, I believe that four important factors were at work. These four factors reinforced each other to create a perfect storm of honey bee loss. In no particular order, these were:

  • Viral diseases mediated by Varroa destructor
  • Poor honey bee nutrition
  • High background levels of pesticide
  • A shallow gene pool created by mass-produced queens

Indeed, other factors may have been involved. But in my mind, these are the big four that could come together again at any time and cause another so-called beepocalypse. All of these issues have been studied extensively since 2006.

Viral diseases

We now know that viral diseases are the real issue behind varroa mites, and that the diseases seem to be getting more powerful as time goes by. Then too, the number of viral diseases in individual colonies seems to be increasing.

Malnutrition

Malnutrition in honey bees is on the rise, not only because of urbanization and monoculture cropping, but also because of the wanton use of herbicides. Herbicides not only destroy flowering plants but they open the door to invasive species. Invasive species decrease the floral diversity of a region, which decreases the total number of days with flowers and the total number of flower types on each day.

Insecticides

Although many people want to point a finger at a particular insecticide group, I believe the bee problem is actually due to a high background level of pesticides in the environment—pesticides of many different classes and modes of action. Until we are willing to live with a few more “pests” in our lives, insecticides will continue to wipe out bees, just as they have devastated other beneficial insects and friendly bugs like fireflies.

Queens

Most of the queens shipped throughout the United States are produced in a few areas of the south. These queens are naturally adapted to the south and, I believe, poorly equipped to deal with northern climates. In addition, because so many queens are produced in small areas, the genetic pool is shallower than it would be if queens were developed locally. These days, queens typically last a year, if that. In the “old days” queens lasted several years—sometimes as many as five. It seems we have sacrificed quality for convenience, and it has become commonplace for beekeepers to re-queen annually. How sad.

Will CCD reappear?

I think that something like CCD could reappear at any time. It might not look exactly the same and it might comprise a different assortment of causes. Although we have learned a lot about honey bee health since the appearance of CCD, we haven’t solved any of the problems. If anything, most of the underlying issues have only gotten worse.

I should also note that some researchers continue to believe that a pathogen is responsible for CCD and they cite some compelling reasons. For example, many beekeepers reported a return of CCD when they reused equipment from dead hives. Others reported that scavengers were slow to invade hives after the colony died of CCD. Still, some of the best scientists in the world hunted for years but found nothing.

My session with Isabella reminded me that even if CCD did not have a single discreet cause, it was still a thing, and one that could recur. I went into the interview thinking I would disabuse her of the notion of CCD but, because of her questions, I came out of the interview convinced CCD—or something like it—could happen again. Only time will tell.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Demise of colony collapse disorder. Weak queens may be the real problem.
Weak queens are a common problem in today’s beehives and may have contributed to what we call colony collapse disorder. Pixabay public domain photo.

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Comments

frances I Moore
Reply

I think your articles are great, keep them coming. I wish you could do videos, that would even be better.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Frances. But honestly, I think people should do what they’re good at. I like to write and photograph, but video is not my thing. There are others out there who do it very well.

Sharon Klemm
Reply

The “don’t bother me with the “facts” I am making up my own” seems to be a prevalent problem all across the United States these days, and is perpetuated by the top down. When I told some people that I have a friendly resident spider living up in the corner of my kitchen ceiling they were mortified. They asked me why I would “allow” that in my house I told them that this little thing wasn’t hurting anybody and was more than earning its keep as evidenced by the pile of dried insects it leaves behind. They suggested that I not only rid myself of this spider, but saturate my house, inside and out, with pesticides, insecticides and any other cides available to insure there would be no other occurrence. Apparently the natural method was too distasteful. Oh brother. What is it with us anyway? Needless to say, the spider is still there. Great commentary on multiple issues.

Anthony Planakis
Reply

Hey Rusty,
As always, “Spot on!!!!”
Thank you for that!!!!
Tonybees 🙂

Linda Rivers
Reply

Rusty, this is a fair and well-thought-out narrative on CCD. I have just returned from our state beekeepers meeting and a general thought for CCD was bee starvation due to a lack of flowering diversity as part of the problem. You have touched on every point that was mentioned at the meeting. Thank you!

Bill. - SE Pennsylvania
Reply

Totally agree. I have never, in this area, seen evidence of CCD. Your four contributing factors are the honey bee’s primary influences.

frances I Moore
Reply

I never knew that the bees came from the southern states This is what I have been trying to do, I try to by bees from the states that have colder winters then we have here, I thought I got bees from Maine I felt like if the bees will survive there they would survive here in Virginia I never knew they get there bees shipped in from Georgia or Tenn, even here where I live the people who sell package of bees get them from Georgia and then they resale them for more and u have to go and pick them up. That is very interesting thanks for the information

Lisa
Reply

Hi Rusty, Thank you for your great site.

I live in Tennessee, on 10 acres of former hay field. I have (so far) successfully over wintered 4 hives entering into my second year of beekeeping.

After many months of planning through my local wildlife/pollinator council/county extension office I am hopefully going to be able to convert at least 6 acres into pollinator habitat.

So here is my question—they have suggested roundup to kill the grass prior to preparing the soil for seeding with the wild flower mix. They say that the fescue and other weeds/hay that we keep mowed now will out compete the new planting if we don’t spray.

I want to have more pollinator habitat (and less mowing)—do you think roundup is a bad idea for this purpose? And if they do spray should I close up my hives of have them spray late in the day?

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

There’s nothing I hate worse than round-up, especially now that California is declaring it a human carcinogen. But I can see the point of using it. It is really hard to grow anything amidst those grasses, and they will persist for years. The trouble, I think, is mostly with your ground bees who try to nest in the soil where that stuff has leached down. I don’t believe it kills them outright, but it can cause loss of vitality and sub-lethal effects. And since 70% of all bee species live underground, that’s a lot of damage. Just my two cents. Yes, I would lock down my honey bees. You don’t want them foraging on flowers that were just sprayed. By morning, the flowers will be mostly gone.

boyd conklin
Reply

Here’s what I do on my seven acres, I hoe the weeds, denuding the ground of the weeds I’m trying to get rid of and encouraging the ones I want, spend a couple years hula hoeing multiple times a year as each species has it’s optimum germination and growth period. Get them before they reseed, and it can be easier when they are smaller, you’ll get the idea once you get going and stay focused. Start with an area you think you can handle/manage to do this on perhaps a half acre or so, so that the work that you do do ends up being effective towards your goal. If the area you choose to start with is uphill it will naturally seed down hill as you increase your areas of focus for the wildflowers. I’m also planting a bunch of scion started mulberry, fig, pomegranate and grape, I’m in North East San Diego county, doing the permaculture thing, trying to dry farm the whole property into a food forest floral wonderland. It’s coming along quite nicely this spring.

Charles Carlson
Reply

A very nice article. I agree with others that you’ve touched on all the points. I would tend to emphasize the role of time, in this case generation time being crucial. Thank goodness for genetic diversity and bee persistence. Insects, like other highly successful life forms, use rapid reproduction to their advantage. It’s a time tested strategy. Thanks!

David Bradshaw
Reply

Rusty, I have kept bees over 45 years and the last 6 years have been a nightmare. This year in my area losses range 35-95% loss. I tried to get Dennis’s team BIP to come out to check some losses and they said it would not be cost effective to send a team out to assess the losses of my neighbors and myself. No wonder he has not seen it in a while. I once asked Jeff Pettis what he thought CCD is and he said it was death by a thousand cuts. So yes it is real and it is a culmination of many factors. And yes no one knows the exact cause. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

David,

What a shame that they wouldn’t go out and look, especially with losses that high. It must leave you wondering what to do next.

David Raymond Ouellette
Reply

Great article as always. Personally have been using the ‘perfect storm’ analogy when trying to explain CCD and trying to stem misinformation from the press. My favorite is ‘Cell towers are disorienting bees and causing CCD.

One factor that I would add is the spread of disease through shipment of queens to fight other disease vectors. That Australian queen may be more resistant to varroa but what other bacteria or virus is it bringing along with it that local varieties can’t resist.

You’re right everyone wants to blame pesticides specifically neonics. Just saw a post this weekend blaming Monsanto for destroying bees. My search for more info on the topic lead me to a horrifying find. Apparently Monsanto has developed a GMO bee that is more resistant to neonics. Do you know anything about this?

Thanks
Dave Ouellette

Rusty
Reply

David,

I’ve heard rumors of Monsanto’s project, but I don’t know the particulars. It sounds like something they would do, however. First deny there is a problem, and then develop something to make money off the thing they denied.

And you are right about the spread of disease through bee shipments. If I were to add another thing to my list, it would be global trade.

Bob Hooker
Reply

Great article, concise analysis of the problems our bees are facing. CCD may be gone, if it ever existed, but these issues remain. We need to do what we can with our colonies to mitigate these problems.

Chris - CLT NC
Reply

Thanks for the article. As a relatively new beekeeper, I have heard a lot about CCD from old articles or people who have gotten out of the hobby years ago. I was curious as to why there was nothing ‘recent’ in my reading.

You mention that queens only last a year. It’s not clear to me if you are saying that the quality of all queens today is so poor that they fail after 1 year or if beeks are using just requeening out of process due to the convenience of the bees. I’m questioning the practice of yearly requeening and was wondering if that is what is best for the hive or best for the honey gatherer.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I think the answer is in between. Queen failure has become so common that beekeepers have begun proactively replacing them under the assumption that if they haven’t failed yet, they soon will. A few years ago I bought three queens after not purchasing any for many years. I was trying to get an early start and thought it would be easier. It turned into a waste. I lost all three within four months while my regular home-grown queens were fine. I know that’s just one example, but it’s what I’m hearing from all over.

Chris - CLT NC
Reply

Thank you for responding. If this is continues to proliferate (kind of an ironic description), then it begs the question if splits and swarms should be requeened…perhaps a topic for a future blog.

Regina
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I enjoy your blog and learn a lot from the discussions. You have a good point with the shallow genetic pool of queens. The role that the bee gut microbiome plays is being studied by a beekeeper and researcher, Nancy Moran, Dept. of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin. She is doing some very interesting research on the effects of antibiotics (tetracycline resistance) and the dramatic reduction in normal healthy bee gut. Healthy bacteria in the bee gut (just like humans) help break down toxins, pathogens and promote absorption of nutrients from food. Is it possible that the offspring of honey bees who were once treated with antibiotics may have weakened gut microbes?
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170314150933.htm
http://www.beeculture.com/honey-bee-gut-microbia/

Rusty
Reply

Regina,

In my opinion it is very possible for unhealthy mothers to have unhealthy offspring.

AramF
Reply

As an additional reply to Chris, regarding queen failure.

I have read about cases where queens kept laying for several years. I think those are very rare exceptions. I recently listened to a seminar by David Tarpy PhD about queens rearing, and here is something to consider. The adequately-mated queens only retain 10% of sperm from each drone (15 of them on average). When deciding what a well-mated queen means, it was shown that a queen with just over 4M sperm meets the criteria. A queen with <1.5M sperm will be a "BAD" queen, by most measures of goodness of a queen. She will very rapidly get to that sperm count within 1-2 years of her laying activity. If she stays in a 5-frame nuc colony, she'll use up her sperm reserves slowly (this is your 4 year queen). If she is in a triple deep, of course she'll use it up faster. A strong colony will swarm after a year and the queen will be superseded after the colony establishes in a new location. So, I would make a proposition that a queen is very likely to be replaced annually in a normal colony, and if she lasts into the next spring, then within 2 years of her life she will be superseded, just because of the reduced sperm numbers and therefore her attractiveness to workers.

If you assign any value to epi-genetics, it might actually be a good thing to go thru rapid renewal of queens, but that's a topic onto its own. Randy Oliver did a good talk to bee epi-genetics, if you want to look into that more.

Richard Caton
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I am going into my 3rd yr. of beekeeping and have read some about CCD but what I didn’t know was that this died out 5 years ago. Interesting how the press keeps running with it. The University of MN just finished a 3 million honey bee research facility and I’m sure the scare of CCD had a hand in getting it done. I agree with all your points and some I will comment on.

Bee genetics. I think the line is kept to pure. I will take a mutt dog over a purebred any day. They are not sensitive to things and are more durable in life.The same with bees. I have Carniolan and Italian and would like to get Russian in the future. Last May one hive swarmed out 3 times and I caught all three. The virgin queens mated with drones of both species so now I’m going into spring with Minnesota hardy mutt bees that should last a few years I hope.

Pesticides and herbicides. These I believe are also major players. Now days any kind of crop loss is not tolerated and maximum yield is the target. I was talking about this with a guy at work and he said his Uncle still farms and it is not the same when he was a kid on the farm. Extreme mono crop. The field is pure corn, no weeds, no insects, the birds don’t even go in there. And none of the GMO crops can be put up for seed because they won’t germinate. When I was building my northern apiary in August of 2015 I had the helicopters coming overhead with their sprayers boomed out doing the fields. The producers in this area use aerial application methods. After seeing this I registered my hives with Field Watch and so far haven’t had any problems.

I could go on but I want to keep this brief.

Crystal
Reply

I ordered 2 brood boxes and on super. They were different companies so different sizes. So hubby fixed the boxes to all work, but my brood box will have to be a super and super a 2nd brood box. So i will have a deep and medium brood box and a medium super. Is that ok

Rusty
Reply

Crystal,

So your brood nest will consist of a deep and a medium, and then you will have a medium super. Yes, that is fine.

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