Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (and why it probably isn’t a disorder)

ImageBees eat nectar, pollen and collect plant sap (propolis). Normally they eat a varied diet of many different flowers, plants and various flora.  They live outside in tree hollows, under structures, inside walls, and many times even just hanging from tree branches out in the open where they survive just fine against all kinds of rain, snow, ants, mites, beetles, moths and whatever else the natural world throws at them.

People decided to try and make more food producible from less land, so it’s cheaper (or more profitable, depending on how you look at it.)  Monoculture developed (growing a lot of one kind of plant in an area). Insect-resistant strains of species were cultivated, engineered and distributed. Multi-spectrum insecticides were invented to combat the increasing number of insects that seemed to like our vast fields full of single-crop plantings (sort of like putting a CostCo where a 7-11 convenience store once stood).

Until the robotic bees are perfected, in order to keep growing grains, fruits and vegetables, regular honeybees (apis mellifera) do the work of pollenating the fields. Even when trucked and transported thousands of miles into foreign soils and dumped on the grounds of vast monoculture plantings, they do their work.

But just like humans, if one is fed a single-source diet, bees own immune systems start breaking down and getting weaker. Gets worse when starting to be fed refined sugar syrups or soy protein extracts instead of plain raw organic pollen. Add to that trace elemental insecticides into the nectar, pollen and plant saps that are coming from all of the agricultural engineering being applied, and you get, one weak bee (or a few billion of them.)

Because we like to work our fields during the daytime, and we don’t like getting stung by bees, we start promoting the more docile-behaving bees, and kill the queens that produce the “angrier” kind. Behaviorally, these “calm” and “easy to manage” bees also seem to have lackluster response to common bee pests, such as varroa mites, small hive beetles, wax moths and even ants.  While their feral and “mean” cousins seem to be able to manage these pesky intruders by themselves, our “calm” bees seem to need assistance keeping their houses in-order, so we add miticide pads, screening boards, moth adhesive traps, and ant barriers to the mix.

What we end up with is a “easy to manage” bee that is basically domesticated – that is, it’s lazy. It lets someone else clean up the intruders and messes, isn’t very disease-resistant, and occasionally can’t figure out how to get home. Sound a little like “Fluffy” or “Spot” at home?Image

But bees are unusually resilient by nature’s norms – and they have wings. So if someone camped you out in a fast food place and said, “Here. Eat these burgers until you die 45 days from now,”  and the burgers were making your digestion runny, and you seemed to get no end of colds, flu, and all sorts of skin irritations head-to-toe and were getting pretty annoyed by the number of moths and beetles that seemed to be liking your particular burger joint, and you had keys to a personal helicopter, what would you do?

Go find better digs and fly away perhaps? The statistical surveys of bee populations within a state are based upon commercial bee hive and other registered control counts. Generally, in the past, they have ignored feral populations on the basis that they were not worth counting, any more than counting the number of houseflies around town. We, as Backwards Beekeepers, have noticed something very different happening. All the usual number of swarms are where they typically occur (trees, old sheds, people’s attics), but these populations are much more large and well-distributed within urban and suburban areas than in prior years.

ImageLet’s say you’re a bee. You notice that the local City seems to take very good care of their flower beds.  In fact, people seem to be planting beautiful flowers year-round, including removing other annuals, and re-planting new ones in their place just to keep the bed looking full of flowers. Home gardeners seem to be using fewer chemicals than before – because people are trying to grow “better quality” food at home than they find in their markets. Whole areas are void of the usual predatory yellowjackets and wasps because they happen to be areas where people don’t like such annoying insects and they’ve put out thousands of traps. Where would you go?

ImageWe don’t count bees.  But we do notice there are way more bees showing up in our cities and suburbs than have been in past years.  And maybe all those field bees just got tired of getting shipped around the country and decided to move into the cozy suburbs instead.

Of significance to this situation is in the majority of reported colony and hive “collapse” cases, dead bees are found only in small or insignificant numbers. We’ve seen what happens when a colony gets sprayed with insecticide – LOTS of dead bees. And the typical observation has been that they’ve “vanished.”  How about they just flew away to greener pastures?

But there might be one more domino-effect to the bees eating so many chemicals and becoming weaker – what happens to the animals that eat them? I was watching a PBS special, entitled “Saving Songbirds” related to wild songbird population reductions that have been observed more consistently over the past decade. Food chain. Coincidences usually are not coincidences.

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5 thoughts on “Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (and why it probably isn’t a disorder)”

  1. Nice post. I hate the idea that robot bees are being thought about, because we can’t/won’t get things right for the real ones.

    I’m not sure you’re right about bees eating propolis…as far as I know they just use it for its antibacterial properties in filling cracks in the hive, varnishing cells, reducing entrances and embalming intruders. Maybe they just nibble at it occasionally? The bees living on comb out in the open are only the ones lucky enough to live in hot climates…they wouldn’t last through the rain and snow of a British winter!

    1. Thanks, Emily! That was a dropped word (“collect”) related to propolis. I didn’t mean to imply that bees ate the stuff (though I hear, we, humans seem to like eating the stuff… :-))

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