Colony Collapse Disorder and the Epic Fight to Save the Bees


Image credit: Ryan Wick, used under Creative Commons license.

Ever since TreeHugger first started reporting on the mysterious honeybee deaths afflicting beekeepers worldwide, there have been countless suggestions of possible causes, and cures, for this worrisome phenomenon. Of all the environmental issues out there, the plight of the honeybees has attracted public attention like no other —in fact, save the bees campaigns have been so successful that the broader environmental movement would do well to take heed. (The fact that without bees' pollination services we'll be hard pushed to grow many of the crops we rely on for survival may have something to do with it!) But while people may be feverishly working, and hoping, for the mystery to be solved (and there has undoubtedly been some progress) there is still a lot of uncertainty about what is causing the problem and what can be done to stop it. So we thought we'd take a look back at what's been going on over the last few years to save the bees, and where we need to go from here. Early Theories about Colony Collapse Disorder
From the very early days of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), there were numerous theories out there about what could be causing these mysterious disappearances. From a particular virus known as Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), through cell phone towers interfering with bees' ability to navigate, (this was later largely discounted as one of the numerous conspiracy theories and far-fetched hypotheses surrounding CCD), to high-levels of atmospheric CO2 messing with bees natural sense of self-regulation in the colony, ideas and opinions have come thick and fast. Anecdotal evidence that organic bees were thriving despite CCD also contributed to rumors that the phenomenon was specifically linked to intensive, industrialized beekeeping practices.

Save the Bees Campaigns Proliferate to Fight Colony Collapse Disorder
Yet while final proof about the actual cause remained elusive, there was no shortage of organizations and institutions stepping up to do their part to help our furry winged friends. Whether it was the White House announcing that it was to include hives in its new vegetable garden; Haagen Daz unleashing a crew of break dancing bee boys to raise awareness; or Burt's Bees distributing free wildflower seeds to create pollinator habitats, it was clear that we humans were not going to let the bee disappear without a fight.

The UK's Cooperative Supermarket took bee protection to a whole new level, however, with its comprehensive Plan Bee campaign announced last year. The program included a number of major commitments and measures that amounted to a holistic approach to combating CCD, including:


  • Temporarily prohibiting the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides on own-brand fresh produce

  • Making over £150,000 ($225,000) available to support research into the demise of the honeybee;

  • Trialing a new wildflower seed mix that will be planted alongside crops on its farms across the UK

  • A major awareness raising element among the cooperative's membership and customer base.



Image credit: cygnus921, used under Creative Commons license.
Colony Collapse Disorder Elicits Strong Response
Individuals have also been encouraged to do their part, with the National Wildlife Federation issuing a list of tips for helping honeybees, and beekeepers themselves employed the power of the internet to help coordinate the fight against CCD.

And while the art world's response to bee disappearances has often been a little surreal—as evidenced by the human bee pollinator suit —it could be argued that CCD has, for many, been a wake up call for how closely we rely on the natural world for our survival.

Research into Colony Collapse Disorder Begins to Yield Results?
With so much money and effort pouring into the fight against CCD, it's no surprise that researchers started reporting a better understanding of the underlying causes. Back in October I posted that a collaboration between military scientists and academic researchers had uncovered a combination, or tag-team, of a virus and a fungus which seem to be working in unison to cause CCD.

But others were skeptical, citing the funding of the study by chemical-giant Bayer—who are facing numerous lawsuits implicating their insecticides as a leading cause of CCD—as being a primary reason for taking these results with more than just a pinch of salt.

That skepticism was backed up when fellow TreeHugger Rachel did some digging into the supposed solving of the CCD mystery. While some experts were indeed concerned about the funding of the study, they were more concerned about the researchers not making key data public, and the high possibility of "honest mistakes" such as confusing bee proteins with IIV proteins, or the use of a relatively inaccurate method for quantifying the level of virus between colonies afflicted with CCD, and colonies that were not.

As bee expert Dennis VanEngelsdorp told Rachel. The study really just confirmed that sick bees are really sick--and they are not all sick from the same thing. So why? That remains the question."

Beekeepers Reject Pesticides Suspected of Causing CCD
With the British Beekeepers Association voting recently to end its controversial practice of accepting cash payments in return for endorsing certain pesticides as "bee friendly", it looks like pesticide poisoning still remains high on the list of suspects, either as a primary cause of, or a contributing factor to CCD. The Association had preciously accepted over £17,500 (about US$26,000) a year for endorsing pesticides, including Bayer's clothianidin, which according to The Guardian was identified as causing the death of two-thirds of honeybees in southern Germany in 2008.

CCD Remains a Major Problem for Bees
As the newly released Vanishing of the Bees documentary shows, Colony Collapse Disorder remains a very real and pressing danger for the world's bees and beekeepers, not to mention the agricultural system that relies on them. That means it's a very real problem for all of us. And while progress is clearly being made on identifying the cause, or most likely causes, of the problem—we'd do well to keep supporting pollinators, pollinator research, conservation and environmental regeneration any way we can.

More on Bees, Beekeeping and Colony Collapse Disorder
Vanishing of the Bees: A Documentary
Honeybee Disappearances Finally Solved?
Honeybee Mystery Solved? Not Quite, Say Experts.
National Wildlife Federation's List of Tips to Help the Honeybee

Tags: Agriculture | Bees | Colony Collapse Disorder | Farming | United States

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK