Bee Colonies Still In Jeopardy

U of I's May Berenbaum says CCD theories range from likely to outrageous.

Published on: Mar 3, 2014

Since colony collapse disorder was first discovered in 2006, only one potential cause has been ruled out.

May Berenbaum, a bee specialist with the University of Illinois, notes Seal Team Six definitively proved Osama Bin Laden wasn't to blame for the destruction of numerous bee colonies across the U.S.

Some may laugh at the notion that colony collapse disorder is part of a terrorist plot. However, there are quite a few outlandish potential causes including cell phone signals, Soviet mind-control techniques and wireless internet. Still, scientists have not been able to pinpoint a single cause of CCD. And, that is no laughing matter.

Apis mellifera, or the western honey bee, is responsible for pollinating more than 90 crop species. The species' extremely broad diet makes them the perfect pollinator, Berenbaum explains.

Researchers Still Working to Identify Cause of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder
Researchers Still Working to Identify Cause of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

In 1852, the Rev. L.L. Langstroth devised a frame hive and became one of the first modern-day beekeepers. The keeping of bees has become quite a profitable business over the years. In 2004, the U.S. imported numerous bee colonies from Australia to meet the pollination demand that came from a massive expansion in the almond industry. Berenbaum notes California's almond industry is worth an estimated $3.9 billion today.

When CCD popped up on scientists' radars in 2006, many noticed there was a higher probability of CCD-affected bees to be infected with Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Further testing revealed many of the Australian-imported colonies were infected with IAPV.

Berenbaum says many were quick to point the CCD finger at Australia. However, more testing showed that IAPV has been in the U.S. bee population since 2001 – three years before any bees were brought over from Australia.

CCD theories
So, what is causing CCD? Berenbaum says researchers are working feverishly to answer that question. On Oct. 26, 2006, the honey bee genome was sequenced, which has led to an even greater understanding of the valuable insect.

Berenbaum notes the honey bee has 10 strains of bacteria, of which some are imperative to the digestion process. It's possible that increased use of fungicides could be causing issues with beneficial bacteria in the colony.

Additionally, Berenbaum says the honeybee has only 46 P450 enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down harmful toxins. That's a lot fewer P450 enzymes than seen in comparable insects.

Only a few of those 46 P450 enzymes are responsible for breaking down pesticides. Berenbaum notes it's very possible that modern beekeeping techniques are further reducing the colony's ability to breakdown crop protection chemicals.

"Honey bees, in their entire history, have never encountered the chemical diversity that they are encountering today," she adds.

Berenbaum also notes the honey bee must eat honey in order to activate these detoxification enzymes. High fructose corn syrup does not have the same activation effect.

"If you feed bees HFCS, you're turning off their natural ability to detoxify the food supply," Berenbaum adds. "We've been feeding bees HFCS since the 1970s."

Trucking colonies hundreds of miles across the U.S. can also have negative effects on colony health, she adds. With these reasons in mind, Berenbaum expects colony management may be an exacerbating factor, irrespective of CCD causes.

"Seven years after CCD first appeared, we know one thing," she notes. "It's complicated."

Read More About:
Natural Resource Conservation Service Pledges $3 Million for Honey Bee Health
Cover Crop Management, Soil Health, Threats To Bees
Dust Begins Clearing Over Treated Seed Corn's Impact On Bees
Bee Advisory Box Will Be Added To Pesticide Labels
EQIP Funds Available For New Program To Improve Bee Health
Bee Colonies Still In Jeopardy
Rebuilding The Bee Population