Beekeepers expect to lose some bees, but in recent years a rapid increase in unexplained mass desertions by worker bees has prompted investigation, research and an official name’ Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Also called Honey Bee Depopulation Syndrome, it is characterized by the complete disappearance of workers from the hive, leaving only the queen, immature limed and stores of honey and pollen. It is widespread in the USA and Canada as well as much of Europe; beekeepers have been reporting losses of a staggering 60 to 90 per cent of their hives.
Theories on the causes abound. Outside ‘interference’, such as climate change or microwaves from mobile phone masts, has been suggested; it may be that, foraging bees tire somehow disorientated and cannot find their way back to the hive. CCD could also be linked to pesticide or fungicide poisoning; possible culprits include pest-control characteristics in modified CM crops and new nicotine-based insecticides.
Or CCD could be due to disease. Sick bees are known to leave their hives to die and tests continue on various fungal infections, mites and viruses. The virulent Israel Acute Paralysis Virus has been identified in many CCD hives. It is commonly carried by the ‘vampire mite’, Varroa destructor, known to weaken the bees’ immune system. In Spain, the parasite Nosema ceranae has recently been found as a constant in affected hives.
It is probable that CCD is the result of a combination of factors but, whatever the cause, the effect should not be underestimated. At risk is not only the honey on our toast, but also the ability of plants to cross-fertilize and reproduce, affecting the diet of the insects, birds and animals that feed on them and ultimately upsetting the ecological balance of the planet.
When: 2006 onwards
Where: North America and much of Europe, with cases increasingly reported worldwide.
Toll: Unknown. But bees serve the vital purpose of plant pollination. Without their aid, who knows what the consequences will be?
You should know: ‘Migratory beekeeping’ has increased in the USA. Hives are transported around the country, from farm to farm, crop to crop, for pollination purposes. Many beekeepers earn more from bee rental than from honey production.