The Dying Honeybee

No one knows why ... honeybees across North America are literally disappearing in mass numbers, leaving behind hives still laden with honey, and pollen stores. The sudden death toll has taken scientists and beekeepers by surprise and left them with a puzzle that is not easily solved. "It may not be a simple answer," said Jeff Pettis, the top scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture.1 The recent phenomenon has been termed "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD) and at present does not have a recognizable underlying cause, though research is underway.

The main symptom of CCD is a hive that is almost or completely empty of worker bees, yet still contains a living queen and immature bees. This is strange because honeybees are very social insects and their lives revolve around the hive. There are also no dead bees around the hive. Another odd characteristic of this disorder is that predators of abandoned hives, such as hive beetles and wax moths, will not enter the infected hives for weeks or even longer. "It's as if there is something repellent or toxic about the colony," said Jerry Hayes, from the Florida Department of Agriculture and President of the Apiary Inspectors of America.2

The first reports of the sharp decline of honeybee colonies appeared in the Eastern United States around October of 2006. Although colony loss is expected, especially during winter, the losses suffered were highly unusual, with American beekeepers reporting 30 to 90 percent of colonies gone. Since then, honeybee colonies in 35 American States, 5 Canadian provinces, and several European countries3 have been affected by this mysterious bee illness.

These death reports immediately became front page news and there has been intense publicity since early 2007 about the serious issue and its implications. The CBC reported in September 2007 that there was a serious illness killing tens of thousands of honeybees across the US, causing industry experts to be baffled and Canadian beekeepers to be concerned about their hives.4 Canada has not experienced the same severity of CCD, but nevertheless, the loss is present. "Those hives were boiling last fall when I put them away, and now there's a tiny little cluster in them. A lot of bees have absconded and not come back," said beekeeper Paul Vautour, president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association. He has lost 80 percent of his 180 hives and says that half of the beekeepers in the province are experiencing the same problems.5

The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists released a statement in 2007 that professional apiculturists in Canada have not diagnosed the Canadian honeybee deaths as CCD. The losses have been attributed to the possible factors of the parasitic mite Varroa, unusual warm fall and winter weather, and a late wet spring. However, Canadian experts have not dismissed the possibility of CCD in Canada, and are very concerned about the state of honeybees. Canadian researchers are monitoring the situation and are in close contact with researches in the United States, for example the U.S. CCD Working Group, and are exchanging scientific information.6

According to the Canadian Honey Council, there are about 10,000 beekeepers in Canada, operating a total of 600,000 honeybee colonies. The majority are commercially operated and Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba produce 80 percent of Canada's 154 million kilograms of honey annually.7 In Ontario, the winter of 2007 saw the province's 150-250 apiarists lose about 23,000 of their 76,000 hives, representing approximately a $5 million dollar setback.8

The recent honeybee die-off has raised many fears and questions about the state of pollinators and the future of food. One third of our food depends on pollinators. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has estimated that the value of honeybee pollination in Canada is more than $1-billion a year. The value of the honeybee in the United States is much larger, estimated to be approximately $15 billion a year. The Washington Post reported that not all scientists foresee an immediate food crisis, since large-scale bee die-offs have happened before, although never with such strength. 9

"Everybody's got their own little pet theory, but it's really hard to say," said Mr. Halsall, president of the Ontario Beekeeper's Association.10 In fall 2006, the National Research Council of the United States recommended that collaboration be made between the United States, Canada, and Mexico to form long-term monitoring projects, to better research pollinators.11 Researchers in both Canada and the United States are collecting samples of dead honeybees for examination, tying to find an answer. Jeff Pettis of USDA, who coordinates the detective work, says that they have more suspected causes to research than time, people and money will allow. 12

There is a lack of funding for research, despite of the recent public awareness and the seriousness of the situation. At Penn State University, entomologist and researcher Diana Cox Foster, says, "We do feel that we need additional monies to come in for grants to work on this problem. We also need to have collaboration internationally to address what the role of different pathogens is." The ice cream maker, Haagen-Dazs has recently in 2008 donated $250,000 to honeybee research, a large amount, but not much when compared to the void of questions surrounding CCD. The American researchers are waiting for the government to put money to their words of interest and promises of support.13

In Canada, new government funding was announced on May 25, 2007, by Joe Preston, Member of Parliament for Elgin-Middlesex-London, on behalf of the Honourable Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board. "Canada's New Government is proud to invest more than $136,000 in two projects that will help the industry address the unexplained losses in the bee population and support the long-term sustainability of the industry," said Mr. Preston. "This support for the Ontario Beekeeper's Association means that important research can be done, which could help beekeepers in future years." 14 Research is being conducted in Ontario on methods to control the infestation of hive beetles in honeybee colonies, and the possible common causes of the recent colony deaths, what the United States calls Colony Collapse Disorder.15 The mysterious plague on the honeybees is confusing scientists, researchers, and beekeepers alike. Still, after years of research, no end is in sight, no one has discovered the cause, let alone possible prevention methods. Scientists have entertained many possible theories about the cause of CCD, but none have been proven. However, it seems to be agreed that there is more than just one solitary cause, but rather a combination of causes acting together against the honeybee.16

Cell Phones and bin Laden: At Least We Know What Is Not Causing It

Through ignorance, the media has encouraged several false theories. For example, the theory that cell phone radiation is killing the honeybees. This story was reported in many newspapers. The Globe and Mail released the following on April 17, 2007: "The small study, led by (German) professor Jochen Kuhn of Landau University, suggests that radiation from widely used cell phones may mess up the bees' homing abilities by interfering with neurological mechanisms that govern learning and memory. To conduct the study, Prof Kuhn placed cell phone handsets near hives and observed that radiation in the frequency range of 900 to 1800 megahertz caused the bees to avoid their homes." Entomologist May Berenbaum, of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign called the cell phone theory "a complete figment of the imagination." 17 Other false theories include one that Osama bin Laden has engineered the honeybee die-off to ruin American agriculture. Another theory claims that the bees are being harmed by genetically modified corn that contains the pesticide B.t.18

A Perfect Storm of Minor Stresses

Experts' scientific research has brought to light many possible factors and stresses that could be contributing causes of CCD. The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA) recently released a statement on Colony Collapse Disorder in June of 2007. The following is a summary of currently identified possible contributing factors: "the effects of migratory beekeeping practices (transportation and confinement of bees, overcrowding), nutritional deficiencies (in adult bees), the effects of known and unknown pathogens (a biological agent that causes disease or illness to its host), parasitic mites such as varroa, a lack of genetic diversity among breeding stock, the effects of systemic pesticides and improper use of mite control products. One or a combination of these factors may cause CCD; no specific cause of CCD has been identified at present." 19

Dr. Peter Kevan, an associate professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelph, Ontario, has examined the effects of beekeeping practices and has told the CBC that the bees are stressed out and are pushed too hard. The practice of transporting colonies by truck to different places to pollinate crops has huge negative effects. After conducting a study, Kevan reported that the bees get the equivalent of human jet lag after a trip.20

Since the mid-1980's the honeybee has had two enemy mites.21 The tracheal mite burrows into the bee's windpipe and sucks its blood, and the varroa mite lives inside the bee, destroying its reproductive organs. Dennis vanEngelsdrop, the acting apiarist for the state of Pennsylvania, examined bee samples from Pennsylvania and Georgia. He dislodged any varroa mites with soapy water, and cut the thorax of the bees to find any tracheal mites, and found that the number of mites was not unusually high.22

Scientists have mapped the honeybee genome and found that the bee does not have a high amount of genes that effectively fight off disease. Entomologist May Berenbaum said that a fruit fly or mosquito has twice the number of toxin fighting genes in their bodies. This suggests that the honeybee is therefore more vulnerable to disease and toxins.23

April of 2007 brought the discovery of the single-celled protozoan called Nosema in bees from colonies with CCD. However, Jerry Bromenshenk, an entomologist at the University of Montana says that there are equal amounts of Nosema in healthy and unhealthy bees. The level of infection is not high enough to prove anything.24

On September 6, 2007, a team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Pennsylvania State University (PSU), and Columbia University (CU), announced that they had found an association between Colony Collapse Disorder and a honeybee virus called the Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV). The pathogen was first discovered in honeybees in Israel in 2002, when the bees started to have strange behaviours, such as twitching their wings outside the hive, and also a loss of the worker bee population. This is the first instance of IAPV in the United States, but this virus is related to the Kashmir bee virus, which has been previously found in the country.25

In the process of finding IAPV, this team of scientists conducted genetic screening on samples of honeybees, from colonies with CCD and also from those without. The technology termed "high-throughout sequencing" was used to compare the bees' DNA and thereby compare any pathogens present. IAPV was the pathogen found in most of the samples.26 Canadian entomologists say that IAPV is probably opportunistic, and affects honeybees that are already stressed and weakened.27 "This does not identify IAPV as the cause of CCD," said Jeff Pettis."What we have found is strictly a strong correlation of the appearance of IAPV and CCD together. We have not proven a cause-effect connection." 28

Mass bee disappearances have happened before. Scientific literature shows that such events took place in the 1880's, the 1920's, and the 1960's. However, there is no way to tell if the agents that caused past disappearances are the same as those involved today.29 The death rate of honeybees has risen since the phenomenon started. This year is worse than the last. Honeybee loss in the United States, in spring of 2008, was 34%.30 In Canada, calculated between September 2007 and 2008, the rate was 36.3% overall.31

Beekeepers, commercial and non-commercial, are facing a lot of challenges ahead. They will have to deal with the stress of losing their honeybee colonies and trying to replace the thousands of lost bees. Jerry Hayes, President of the Apiary Inspectors of America said in an interview, "I don't know if this is Darwin in action and that this might go away as the weak are culled out and the strong survive-because if this continues on for another year or two, there won't be many commercial beekeepers left."32


If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read The Chocolate Fly and Vanilla Without the Bee



  1. Borenstein, Seth. "Honey Die-Off Threatens Food Supply." Washington Post 2 May 2007.1 May 2008.
  2. Chong, Jia-Rui. "Suddenly, the bees are simply vanishing." Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  3. Ibid.
  4. O'Malley, Martin. "Why are bees dying?" CBC News 6 Sep. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  5. "Strange affliction killing N.B. honey bees." CBC News 10 Apr. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  6. "CAPA Statement on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). "Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists. 4 June 2007.
  7. Canadian Press."Link between cellphones, bee die-off suggested." Globe and Mail 17 Apr. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Johnson, Renee."Recent Honey Bee Colony Declines." CRS Report for Congress. August 14, 2007. p 2.
  10. Canadian Press. "Link between cellphones, bee die-off suggested." Globe and Mail 17 Apr. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  11. "Some Pollinator Populations Declining; Improving Monitoring and More Biological Knowledge Needed to Better Assess Their Status." The National Academies 18 Oct. 2006. 1 May 2008.
  12. Borenstein, Seth. "Honey Die-Off Threatens Food Supply." Washington Post 2 May 2007.1 May 2008.
  13. Alexander, Heather. "US fears over honey bee collapse." BBC News 25 Mar. 2008. 5 May 2008.
  14. "Canada's New Government Invests $136,582 in Ontario's Honey Bee Industry." May 24, 2007.
  15. Ibid.

    "Unfortunately, we still don't have a clear picture of why this is happening," said Jerry Hayes, during an interview in April 2008.Howe. Linda, Moulton." Honey Bee Collapse Now Worse on West Coast." Earthfiles 10 Apr. 2008. 6 May 2008.
  16. Johnson, Renee. "Recent Honey Bee Colony Declines" CRS Report for Congress. August 14, 2007. p 2.
  17. Chong, Jia-Rui. "Suddenly, the bees are simply vanishing." Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  18. Ibid.
  19. "CAPA Statement on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)." Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists, 4 June 2007.
  20. O'Malley, Martin. "Why are bees dying?" CBC News 6 Sep. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Chong, Jia-Rui. "Suddenly, the bees are simply vanishing." Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  23. Borenstein, Seth. "Honey Die-Off Threatens Food Supply." Washington Post 1 Apr. 2008. 2 May 2007.
  24. Chong, Jia-Rui. "Suddenly, the bees are simply vanishing." Los Angeles Times 10 Jun. 2007. 1 May 2008. AND Howe. Linda, Moulton."Honey Bee Collapse Now Worse on West Coast." Earthfiles 10 Apr. 2008. 6 May 2008.
  25. Kaplan, Kim. "Genetic Survey Finds Association Between CCD and Virus." USDA Agricultural Research Service 6 Sep. 2007. 29 Apr. 2008.
  26. Ibid.
  27. O'Malley, Martin. "Why are bees dying?" CBC News 6 Sep. 2007. 1 May 2008.
  28. Kaplan, Kim. "Genetic Survey Finds Association Between CCD and Virus." USDA Agricultural Research Service 6 Sep. 2007. 29 Apr. 2008.
  29. "Questions and Answers: Colony Collapse Disorder." USDA, Agricultural Research Service.
  30. Howe. Linda, Moulton. "Honey Bee Collapse Now Worse on West Coast." Earthfiles 10 Apr. 2008. 6 May 2008.
  31. "Beekeepers worry over declining hive populations." CTV News 22 Apr. 2008. 7 May 2008.
  32. Howe. Linda, Moulton. "Honey Bee Collapse Now Worse on West Coast." Earthfiles 10 Apr. 2008. 6 May 2008.