Something Wild: How Are the Bees Doing?

A Something Wild fan wrote in recently with a question or two. Ben, a backyard beekeeper in Deerfield, asks “I know there has been a lot of buzz about chemicals getting into the bee's main protein source, pollen. It would be really cool if you could mention the bees and what kind of plants the bees pollinate (and are exposed to) throughout the various seasons. Furthermore! Where in the world are the bees getting pollen in the winter? Sometimes I even see my bees bringing in pollen from who knows where on the rare warm day in the wintertime." 

Coverage of our honeybees has slowed down recently, a couple of years ago you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing about CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.

But let’s start with Ben’s second question, because that’s a little more straight forward. Bees are not gathering pollen in the winter. They’re very busy in the spring, summer and autumn months collecting pollen and creating a store of honey. And it’s that store that is designed to feed the hive through the winter months, when there is no pollen. When we see the odd bee buzzing around in the winter, they are usually conducting “cleansing flights” to get rid of waste from the hive.

But the chemical question Ben raises is harder. To review, Colony Collapse Disorder is a problem that has plagued domestic honeybee hives for several years now. While a healthy hive typically loses some small percentage of the population in the cold months, scientists studying these hives have seen colony loses of 30-50% per year. It seems to be mostly adult bees dying-off, leaving behind a live queen, and maybe some immature bees. The reason this affects us is, of course, that our food supply is largely pollinated thanks to bees.

The problem is that we don’t yet know exactly what’s causing CCD. Among the chemicals suspected of contributing to CCD are Neonicotinoids. “Neonics” are nicotine derivative chemicals developed for use as a pesticides. These are the next generation of pesticides, replacing broad-based chemicals we realized were bad decades ago. These neonics have been incorporated into agricultural pest control, killing off parasites like aphids that suck the juice out of plants; you’ll find them in some of the most common flea and tick collars (like Advantage and Frontline), and they’re being used in housefly and termite control products.

This sort of broad application of these chemicals has its drawbacks. Neonics are effective, because they target the insect’s nervous system, disabling it. And they can impact more than insects, including birds and mammals. So we thought we found a solution to the old pesticide problem. But it turns out the new pesticides aren’t necessarily any better. And there are some scientists who believe neonics are the root cause of colony decline. But others believe there are other factors. Dr. Dennis VanEnglesdorp (who gives a great TEDx Talk) runs the bee lab at the University of Maryland. His data points to three reasons for the drop in the bee populations. One is tiny mite infestations: trachea mite, which nest and spawn in the bees breathing tubes, and varoa mites, which act more like ticks, latching on to the bee and sucking its blood. Either can take a large tool on a colony, and together they can be devastating.

VanEnglesdorp also points to poor colony nutrition as a factor. We have replaced a lot of open land with and corn and soy plants, nearly eliminating the acres of flowering plants that occupied those open spaces. While the new crops do offer flowers for the bees from which to harvest, it is a lower grade of pollen The third factor, VanEnglesdorp identifies is pesticides, like neonics. Domestic beekeepers are managing to maintain the number of colonies each year, by “splitting” them and establishing new colonies with a mail-order queen. But the effects of CCD are still being felt.