(Picture Credit: T.J. Gehling/Flickr)
As we head into winter, it might be a good time for an update on colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD first made headlines during the winter of 2006/2007, when beekeepers began reporting huge colony losses. In some cases, the losses were as high at 90%. When a hive is hit by CCD, the bees simply vanish. The queen may be present with a few attendants, and there are honey stores, but most of the worker bees are simply gone. One theory is that the worker bees know when they are dying prematurely, and they leave the hive to die elsewhere. Another theory is that forager bees become disoriented due to various factors, and are unable to find their hive. Whatever the cause, without the workers, a colony soon collapses. Since 2006, CCD-related beehive losses in the US have averaged 30% per year. For most beekeepers, acceptable annual hive losses are somewhere between 5 and 10%.
A lot of time, money and effort has been directed at solving the problem of CCD, but the solution remains elusive. Current research is focused on a combination of stressors. Alone, these stressors would not be a problem. But when mixed together, they are lethal. These stressors are: (1) several different viruses and diseases, such as nosema and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus; (2) parasites, especially the varroa mite; (3) poor management practices, such as overcrowding of apiaries, failing to use enough supplemental food (or the right type of supplemental food) when pollen and nectar sources are scarce, and migratory beekeeping whereby hives are moved around the country too much and too far; and (4) certain types of agricultural pesticides that do not kill the bees immediately, but build up slowly in the insects' system until the bees are overcome.
While the scientists and beekeeping community continue to work on this serious problem, there are things that you can do to help improve honeybee health. Do not use pesticides indiscriminately, and never during mid-day hours when bees are most likely out foraging. Also, consider planting more bee-friendly plants in your yard, which have plenty of nectar and pollen for visiting honeybees. Talk to you local nursery about which bee-friendly plants grow best in your area. And for the real adventurous, get a couple backyard hives and enter the the wonderful world of beekeeping and local honey harvesting.