The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Where Have All the Honey Bees Gone?

Where Have All the Honey Bees Gone?


May 29, 2007

Where Have All the Honey Bees Gone?

It is a common adage among bee farmers that bees are responsible for about every third bite of food that you take. After all, modern day honey bees are indeed responsible for most of the pollinating on monoculture megafarms - large farms that raise a single crop, like cucumbers. Their job is extremely important because, due to habitat loss, megafarms do not have the benefit of wild bees that their much smaller counterparts once enjoyed. So when about 40 percent of the marketplace honeybee colonies died in both the U.S. and Europe in the fall and winter of 2006, people started to notice.

Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) encompasses several symptoms, the most obvious being the complete absence of adult bees, with little or no build up of dead bees inside or in front of the hives, and with capped brood and food stores still remaining inside. Post abandonment, wax moth and hive beetle attacks are noticeably delayed. Also, in actively collapsing colonies, where there is not enough work-force to maintain the brood that is present, colony members are reluctant to consume their provided feed (sugar syrup and protein supplements).

"When you look at honeybee survival over time, it functions like a bell curve. Every year the left hand side drops off the map, at a rate of about 20 percent due to normal causes. Those are considered acceptable losses," says Kim Flottum, Editor ofBeeCulture Magazine, who lost half of his own hives last year. "We're seeing double that with CCD, which is significant."

Even with these figures, Flottum points out that the losses have not yet reached a critical level. With enough domestic bees remaining to pollinate this year's crop of almonds, apples, cranberries, squash and blueberries, and the ability to import bees if necessary, customers will notice few changes at the store level. If problems like CCD are not abated in the future, however, and the honeybee population drops to devastating numbers, the potential economic impact could be huge. Why?

U.S. agriculture relies on honeybee pollination for anything from apples to melons to alfalfa seeds. That amounts to about 2.5 million colonies overall, some 1.2 million colonies needed for the almond crop alone. For all of U.S. agriculture, the value of the increased yield and quality achieved through pollination by honey bees is approximately $14.6 billion, according to the Cornell Pollination Study.

Without sufficient pollination, farmers would potentially face much smaller crop yields, and cucumbers that once cost 30 cents a piece could skyrocket to as much as $10 each. That's just the beginning. A declining pollination population means fewer alfalfa seeds, which in turn means a shortage in alfalfa feed - a major food source for animals like chicken, and farm-raised fish and shrimp. Fewer chickens means fewer eggs, and ultimately, higher prices for commodities on the top of the food chain. And if the bees completely disappeared?

"We'd be looking at a pretty bland diet," says Flottum. "We'd survive, but we'd be getting really tired of black beans."

A lot of money has been funneled into solving the mystery of the disappearing honey bees, says Flottum, but unfortunately, there are no conclusive findings to date. Theories are numerous, and include urbanization, mites, fungus, genetically modified crops, and pesticides.

One fairly new family of pesticides, neonicotinoids, has received particular attention. Designed to be less harmful than previously used pesticides, neonicotinoids are non-toxic to mammals, and leave a short residue. They may, nevertheless, have a sub-lethal effect on honey bees - not enough toxicity to kill them, but enough to modify their nervous system over time, induce behavior modification, and pass these characteristics on to their brood. Thus far, this has not been proven.

What we do know is that CCD may not be a new phenomenon. In fact, the first published record of the disorder appeared in 1869. Ten years ago, there were honey bee losses that eclipsed the current numbers by a factor of 10. Is it cyclic? Is it pesticides? For now we'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, Flottum reports, all hope is not lost.

"I'm already seeing that the rate of loss has slowed. My colonies that were looking sad are suddenly bursting at the seams. This doesn't mean that CCD has gone away, but the plants are blossoming again, and the honey is flowing. As the old saying goes, 'Honey flow cures a multitude of sins'."