Area beekeepers collect national, international awards for their honey. For the story, click here.
When local beekeeper Bob Bradbury surveyed his beehives last March in preparation for spring, he found a big surprise. About 80 percent of his hives were empty.
Though dismayed, he was not completely shocked because bees have been dying in massive numbers across the country, and even the world, for several years. Nicknamed the “disappearing disease,” the phenomenon is officially named “colony collapse disorder” and describes the sudden and unexplained disappearance of all or most of the bees in a hive, leading to hive failure.
“I had not encountered it before, but I knew about it,” Bradbury said. “We all know it’s out there.”
Fortunately, Bradbury managed to recoup his losses with newly purchased hives, but the question still remains: What is causing the bees to disappear?
While colony loss is expected especially during the winter, and declines have happened several times throughout history, the levels of loss across the country since 2006 is unprecedented.
“We were seeing bees dying nationwide at an alarming rate,” said Jennifer Berry, research assistant and lab manager for the University of Georgia’s Honey Bee Lab. “Some beekeepers were losing 60 to 90 percent of their colonies and we didn’t know why.”
The importance of the honeybee is often overlooked and integral to the environment and agriculture business. Many fruits, vegetables and nuts are dependent on pollinators such as bees. In 1975, the honeybee was designated the state insect of Georgia in recognition of its contribution to the local economy through honey production and in the pollination of crops.
Without the honeybee, many common foods would no longer be available.
“One third of everything we eat is there because of honeybees,” Berry said. “When you go into the produce aisle at your local grocery store, all that fruit and all that color would no longer be there. You can say goodbye to your fruit smoothies and other fruit drinks.
“We would not starve, but our diet would be very bland.”
In response to the massive losses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began issuing grants in 2008 to promote the coordinated study and prevention of colony collapse disorder. University of Georgia was chosen as the lead institution of the project and received $4.1 million.
Research suggests the problem does not have a single cause and is instead a culmination of multiple factors. Among the suspected causes are a lack of genetic diversity among honeybees, loss of natural forage and environment, basic management practices of beekeepers and exposure to insecticides, fungicides, diseases and parasites.
“There is a cumulative effect of various things happening here,” Berry said. “We have significantly changed our farming practices in the last century. Instead of a wide variety of forage, we have these massive fields of a single crop, which is sprayed with insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, in soil treated with fertilizer.
“Then came exotic pests, diseases and viruses — all of these in conjunction add stress to the system and the bees give up.”
Berry said one of the primary culprits is the Varroa mite, a parasite introduced to U.S. honeybee population in the late 1980s. The mites leave open wounds on the bees, weaken their immune system, carry a variety of viruses and can quickly infect an entire hive.
Another factor is the use of insecticides, specifically neonicotinoids, which is similar to nicotine, the primary active ingredient in cigarettes. Neonicotinoids have been widely used to protect corn crops and soybean seeds from pests. It is also present in some treatments used by home gardeners.
When bees and other insects pollinate plants treated with neonicotinoids, the chemicals can be ingested and brought back to the colony.
“I saw a bag of pesticide in a local feed store that had no warning on the bag about it being dangerous to bees,” Bradbury said. “I called them and asked them about it, and he said it is extremely toxic to bees.
“We don’t use that, but our neighbor could and bees don’t stop at the property line.”
Research suggesting neonicotinoids weaken the immune system of bees led the European Union to ban their use for two years.
Bee losses in America have now settled to about 30 percent yearly, Berry said, but the future is uncertain.
“I tend to be an optimist and I hope people are becoming more aware,” she said. “But in the long term, we really need to start re-evaluating our farming practices and our growth.”