Riverwoods Preservation Council

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Bee on Aster
 The Buzz is Gone

 September - October, 2007



(photographs courtesy of Sue Auerbach)

A significant portion of our food supply depends on pollination by honey bees. The honey bee population seems to be collapsing. Scientists don’t know why.

Wild honey bees have almost completely disappeared. The only remaining honey bees are kept in colonies by beekeepers. The beekeepers maintain the bees in hives – frequently numbering in the hundreds - and travel all over the country renting the bees to farmers. Honey is of minor importance. The bees are released into fields to pollinate commercial crops.
Lately, beekeepers have been reporting that their honey bees have been dying at a dramatic rate, or simply vanishing without a trace. The dying honey bees appear overwhelmed by some catastrophic illness, their insides turning to black mush. When the bees disappear, they leave hives full of honey that other bees will not touch. It’s called “Colony Collapse Disorder”, it’s appearing in both the U.S. and Europe, and no one knows the cause or the cure.

Honey bees are necessary pollinators of about one-third of U.S. crop species. For some crops, such as apples, blueberries and almonds, honey bees are essential. Without them, the crops would not exist. For other crops, honey bees are merely extremely important. Without them, shortages would exist and prices would skyrocket. The consequences of Colony Collapse Disorder could be enormous. In prior years, the big problem has been parasitic mites that have developed pesticide resistance. Mites are believed to be what has practically killed off the wild honey bee population.

Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by something different, and far more lethal. But what?
Some scientists think it’s the result of a newly introduced Asian mite or a mutated virus. Others suspect pesticides, such as a widely used nicotine-based neurotoxin or a long-lasting pesticide banned in France but used heavily elsewhere. Still others suspect that genetically modified plants with built-in pesticides, common in agriculture, affect bees directly or disable their immune systems. Some believe bees are suffering from severe stress caused by constant travel packed in large trucks and lack of nutritional diversity – in winter bees are fed corn syrup instead of honey and in summer bees feed on nectar from one type of plant on giant farms.

Difficulties in finding a solution include the lack of data concerning the abundance and diversity of alternative pollinators, if any, and insufficient information about adverse effects of modern chemical-dependent farming practices. As one commentator put it, there has been a “benign indifference to the precarious nature” of the balance of nature.

Bee on Solomon SealAbout twenty thousand species of bees have been identified. Beekeepers in the U.S. and Europe rely on a single species of bee, the western honey bee, to pollinate all food crops. In addition, beekeepers must make annual purchases of queen honey bees to make up for bees that have died or disappeared. The purchased queens come from a small number of “breeder queens”, further limiting the genetic diversity of the bee population. Scientists believe that dependence on one species of bee and a small pool of breeder queens create significant risk to our food supply. The weakness of one bee is a weakness of all.

Honey bees are desirable pollinators because they are generalists – they are attracted to a large variety of flowering plants – and because they form huge colonies that can be moved to where pollination is needed. They overwhelm with numbers, and they return to the hive when their work is done. Other pollinators are more selective and less social - less amenable to collection and transport to crops, and less likely to return once released. We have relied on honey bees for so long, and have changed the landscape so much, that suitable replacement pollinators may be difficult to find.
According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, “Pollinator decline is one form of global change that actually does have credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world.”
Could Colony Collapse Disorder signal the beginning of a biological meltdown, or will it turn out to be something easily addressed? No one knows. Albert Einstein is said to have offered the following observation: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.

Interesting Bee Facts:

  • Honey bees form colonies of from 20,000 to 80,000 bees.
  • Most wild bees, unlike honey bees, are solitary and don’t form colonies.
  • Honey bees nap in the afternoon.
  • More than 95% of honey bees are worker bees, which are female.
  • When worker honey bees sting, they leave an odor that directs other honey bees to the sting site.
  • Male honey bees (drones) buzz ferociously, but cannot sting.
  • Honey is predigested food made by bees from nectar.
  • Honey bees dislike noise, vibration and the odor of bananas.
  • A honey bee produces only a small portion of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • Honey is used by honey bees as food in the winter. A typical colony makes over 50 - 100 pounds of honey each year. It takes 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey.
  • A queen honey bee can live eight years or more. Worker bees and drones live about 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Worker bees are active pollinators for only a few weeks. Drones do not pollinate.
  • Honey bees sting to defend a populated hive, and are unlikely to sting when building the hive or away from the hive.
  • Honey bees seem to become frustrated on windy and cloudy days, and are more likely to sting on those days.
  • Honey bees communicate by odor, sound and various dance moves.
  • Honey bees have five eyes, but can see clearly only about a yard.
  • Bumble bees are native to North America, and form small underground colonies of one to five hundred workers.
  • The entire bumble bee colony dies each winter – except for the queen, which starts a new colony the next spring.
  • The large bumble bees seen in the spring are queens, looking for a place to nest.
  • Bumble bee workers come in two sizes – large ones forage for food and small ones maintain the nest.
  • Bumble bee workers live about a month.
  • Most bees love sun and prefer to nest in dry places.
  • Many bees nest in the ground, in undisturbed soil in a sunny spot.
  • Even natural herbicides and botanical insecticides can harm bees.
  • A diversity of plants that flower at different times is best for bees, since flowers must be present during bees’ short life spans.
© Riverwoods Preservation Council- - Page last updated: December 2009