Sudden honey bee colony losses alarm beekeepers, first report of colony collapse disorder (CCD)
Catastrophic honey bee colony losses reported by commercial beekeeper Dave Hackenberg in late 2006 alarmed the commercial honey bee industry. Hackenberg reported losses impacting 2200 of 3000 commercial hives at his Florida apiary. Beekeepers across North America and major segments of industrial agriculture feared widespread catastrophic honey bee losses as reports demonstrated that colony collapse was continent-wide.
Honey bees have suffered repeated sudden declines in the past, followed by rapid recoveries. More recent pathogens have delivered more serious lasting declines. The Varroa mite, a bee parasite discovered in the United States in 1987, has resulted in a 45% decline in honey bee colonies with its spread across the continent. Colony collapse disorder, so far, has followed an even more alarming pattern. CCD peaked in many areas during 2007--2008, then eased somewhat, but crippling losses continue. CCD and a host of maladies continue to plague commercial and hobby beekeepers. Most areas see devastating 30% to 50% losses of colonies annually, depending on care, location and weather conditions. Agriculture requires immense numbers of pollinating insects, just in time*. Is agriculture at risk?
How could a spike in colony failures strike across the continent nearly simultaneously? At least half of all honey bee colonies in North America are traveling commercial pollinators. Almost all of these are trucked to the vast almond groves in California's central valley during winter, where hives from across North America potentially share pathogens, including a multitude of recently discovered bee viruses, before returning to origin apiaries. Bee viruses, vectored by the now ubiquitous Varroa mites, plague bee colonies throughout North America. Beekeepers are also concerned about the proliferation of new pesticide chemistries and technologies (possible stressors range from ubiquitous seed corn coatings, to retail suburban landscape maintenance chemicals). Multiple stressors in combination may be defeating colonies.
New agribusiness models operating at grand scales and new technologies in agriculture; nutrient delivery systems, systemic pest controls, and so on, have greatly increased acreage, acreage productivity, and agribusiness profitability in recent decades. Food production demands from the ballooning global population threaten to outstrip reliable food supply nevertheless. The future of agriculture at scale may prove to be nonlinear and unpredictable in outcomes and profitability, too much of a good thing. Already, local produce movements and clean food initiatives are bringing some purchases and profits back home to local green growers, but will there be enough pollinators left to deliver the goods?
Honey bees are non-native, introduced to North America by colonists by 1622. Feral colonies rapidly swarmed beyond European settlements of the time. The initial 17th century ecological impacts; the losses among native bee species and other native pollinators caused by the newly introduced colonial honey bees to North America can never be known. Researchers fear that modern honey bee maladies impact native pollinators. Do ecological impacts of honey bees in North America continue?
Today, honey bees and diverse native pollinators are essential for agriculture, one out of every three mouthfuls of food consumed in North America required a pollinator to help bring it to market. A healthy diet demands healthy pollinators, whether our produce is home-grown or purchased through a supply chain from far flung mega-growers.
Honey bees cannot do it alone. Native bee species are important pollinators for agriculture and for native plant species, many of which are not effectively pollinated by honey bees. The recent honey bee crisis is occurring against a backdrop of continued long-term native bee declines. Today, both native bees and honey bees (and other native pollinators) are in crisis.
Do something for pollinators.
What can we do? Check out Pollinator Partnership.
See Scientific American 2009 CCD summary here or here.
*"just in time" is a business strategy to reduce production cost by bringing in just enough resources, just when needed. California's almond groves are manicured hectares that support local native pollinators and honey bees poorly, excepting a few weeks of almond grove bloom and a few more of stone fruit grove bloom. I stretch the just in time concept a little, herein. Honey bees are brought in to the groves for seasonal pollination services (2.5 million hives were needed for the 2013 season) in place of maintaining diverse floral support for local year 'round pollinators. During 2013, service prices per hive are rumored to have reached over $200.00 for grove owners who did not contract lower prices in advance of the colony survival projections for 2013 (colony losses expected to exceed 50% in 2013). Maybe now it will be good business to support local pollinators year 'round by re-introducing and maintaining diverse flowering plants in and around the tree groves? Trouble is, only narrow roadsides remain in major growing regions, very limited space for native habitat restoration to take hold. How about one dedicated acre per hectare to start?