The almond trees are blooming and the bees are dying, and nobody knows why. All up and down California’s vast San Joaquin Valley, nearly 2,500 square kilometres of small nut trees arranged in laser-straight rows are shaking off the cobwebs of winter. They’re gearing up once again to produce nearly half a billion kilograms of nuts, worth US$3 billion to the U.S. economy.
The trees cannot produce the bounty on their own, however. They need bees – a million hives worth – trucked in from nearly forty U.S. states to move pollen from one tree to another, fertilising the blooms in the largest managed pollination event on Earth.
But even as the beekeepers reap record fees for renting their hives, their livelihood is now threatened by the largest loss of honey bees in the history of the industry.
Since October 2006, 35 per cent or more of the United States’ population of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) – billions of individual bees – simply flew from their hive homes and disappeared.
When the almonds were being plucked from the trees late last year, Gene Brandi of Los Banos, California had 2,000 hives, but by late February he had just 1,200 – a loss of 40 per cent.
And Brandi is one of the more fortunate. Across the 24 U.S. states affected by the mysterious phenomenon, losses have ranged up to 90 per cent. “I’ve had a couple of yards where I’ve had 200 hives and they’re down to 10 hives that are alive,” says David Bradshaw of Visalia, about 180 kilometres southeast of Los Banos along California’s Route 99.
What’s causing the carnage, however, is a total mystery; all that scientists have come up with so far is a new name for the phenomenon – Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – and a list of symptoms.
In hives hit by CCD, adult workers simply fly away and disappear, leaving a small cluster of workers and the hive’s young to fend for themselves. Adding to the mystery, nearby predators, such as the wax moth, are refraining from moving in to pilfer honey and other hive contents from the abandoned hives; in CCD-affected hives the honey remains untouched.
The symptoms are baffling, but one of the emerging hypotheses is that the scourge is underpinned by a collapse of the bees’ immune systems. Stressed out by cross-country truck journeys and drought, attacked by viruses and introduced parasites, or whacked out by harmful new pesticides, some researchers believe the bees’ natural defences may have simply given way. This opens the door to a host of problems that the bees can normally suppress.
What’s surprising is that mysterious declines are nothing new. As far back as 1896, CCD has popped up again and again, only under the monikers: ‘fall dwindle’ disease, ‘May dwindle’, ‘spring dwindle’, ‘disappearing disease’, and ‘autumn collapse’.
Even the current outbreak has possibly been going on undetected for two years, according to the CCD Working Group – a crack group of U.S. researchers from institutes including the Pennsylvania State University and University of Montana, who are trying to unravel the mystery.
What has made the members of the Working Group – as well as conservationists, beekeepers, and farmers – really sit up and notice is the scale of this year’s decimation; something in the environment has allowed CCD to reach an unprecedented scale that threatens the very survival of the pollination industry.
“We have never seen a die-off of this magnitude with this weird symptomology,” says Maryann Frazier, a bee researcher at Pennsylvania State University. “We’ve seen bees disappear over time and dwindle away, but not die-off so quickly.”
Asian mites and latent viruses
A problem preventing clear identification of CCD is that honey bees are already under threat from manifold foes.
Even without CCD, the number of managed hives in the U.S. has dwindled by nearly 50 per cent since the industry’s peak in the 1970s. The main culprit for the die-offs is a tiny Asian mite. Known as Varroa destructor to scientists and the ‘vampire mite’ to beekeepers, these tiny parasites – circular, crab-like arachnids about the size of a bee’s eyeball – have been quietly parasitising the Asiatic honey bee (Apis cerana) in Southeast Asia for millennia.
Some time in the early 1980s, though, the mites hitched a ride to America and hopped on new hosts – spreading like wildfire throughout the defenceless Western honey bee population with the help of migratory beekeepers who obligingly trucked them around the country. The mites suck the vital juices out of both developing and adult bees, and left unchecked can kill a hive within 12 months.
In addition to the damage that the mites do themselves, they also spread viruses. Furthermore, the mites appear to assist the viruses by somehow sabotaging the bees’ immune system.
“There’s something about a mite feeding on a bee that just knocks its immune system out. [Then] the viruses can take over,” says Eric Mussen, a bee researcher at the University of California, Davis.
But mites and their viruses have been infecting U.S. honey bees for nearly 30 years. What has experts worried is that CCD kills bees even more efficiently than mites – destroying a healthy colony in a matter of weeks.
All stressed out
As if having its bodily fluids sucked out by a parasite wasn’t enough to weaken a bee, some suspect its immune system is also under attack from plain old stress.
Just as humans fall ill more readily after draining tasks or emotional upheavals, Mussen says stress is a sure-fire way to compromise bee immunity too.
And the lives of commercial honey bees are filled with stress. A typical year for a hive might entail up to five cross-country truck trips, chasing crops to pollinate and clover fields to make honey in. Banging the bees around during cross-country journeys can take a heavy toll.
“Some of the beekeepers you talk to will tell you that they’ll lose 10 per cent of their queens” on every trip, Mussen says. And besides transportation stress, many of the hardest-hit beekeepers have reported that their hives underwent extraordinary stresses like drought, overcrowding, or famine, in the months before die-offs occurred.
Stress alone won’t kill a bee, but Mussen thinks that it’s just one more factor conspiring against them. “It’s the knocking down of the immune system, it’s having mites around – everything is just piling up – they haven’t got much of a chance.”
Fly away and die
Pesticides are designed to kill bugs and other pests on crops without causing harm to humans or the environment. But in a never-ending biological arms race, miscreant insects develop resistance to new pesticides nearly as fast as chemists can create them. In this tit-for-tat exchange, scant attention is paid to effects that new pesticides have on beneficial insects like honey bees.
While many pesticides are downright lethal to bees, some new studies have pointed to other strange effects found at low doses. For example, low doses of new compounds called neonicotinoids might be interfering with bee minds. Potentially, this prevents them from remembering their colony’s location and causes them to get lost and never return.
According to Pennsylvania State University entomologist Diane Cox-Foster, another possibility is that neonicotinoids are another factor impairing bee immunity.
Yet another hypothesis is that sick adult bees may be self-sacrificing: flying away to die in order to protect the hive from further infection.
When the Working Group first examined samples of CCD-killed bees from across the country, one factor they found in common was fungal growth in the bees’ guts. The fungi may be from the genus Aspergillus, a group of fungi that produce toxins which can kill young adult bees. Studies published in the past have reported that bees infected with the fungus fly away from the colony to die.
Not that Aspergillus is the only possibility. “We’re asking if there is anything new that may have been brought in accidentally,” says Cox-Foster. “We know that there are a couple of potential routes for introduction of new pathogens.”
Hands off the hive
When a colony is weakened other bees or insects usually move in to take advantage of the gap and score a free lunch in the form of honey. Not so in CCD-killed hives; wax moths and other predators stay away, at least for much longer than they would normally.
According to Cox-Foster, it could be that insects’ keen sense of smell may be keeping them away from dangerous chemicals present in the dead hive. “We know that insects are very good at detecting chemicals in their environment. There are studies that have taken caterpillars and shown that they’ll actually feed around a droplet of pesticide on a leaf because they can detect it”
“One of our hypotheses is that the fungus itself is producing toxins that are being detected by the other insects. Likewise, it could be one of these environmental contaminants [like pesticides],” she says.
That’s as far as the research detectives have gotten to date. Are bees, under stress from many sources, succumbing to pressure from new pathogens or chemicals? Between mites, viruses, fungi, stress and new pesticides, the insects are under threat like never before.
Fully one-third of fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in America are dependent on pollinators – overwhelmingly honey bees. The net value of all this produce to the U.S. economy is roughly US$15 billion per year. And across America experts are scrambling to find answers to the mystery before it turns into an even bigger economic and agricultural disaster.