Oh Honeybees, Where Have You Gone?

In 2006, honeybee populations began plummeting across the nation in a mysterious fashion—entire colonies would suddenly disappear or die, leaving behind a queen, a few larvae and a skeleton crew of workers to hold the operation together, a task they often failed to manage. The result (dead bees, empty hives and unpollinated plants) left a widening circle of stakeholders—beekeepers, biologists, agriculture industry monitors—scratching their heads. Over the next few years, the mystery evolved into a genuine crisis, and the circle of affected populations began to expand. Calculators were produced, numbers were entered, charts were drawn, and dollar signs entered the equation.

As bee-watchers know, colony collapse disorder (CCD) was recognized by 2013 as a major threat to agricultural production, national food distribution, and by extension, national security. On the way down that path, food prices were expected to soar to unsustainable levels while bee populations plummeted into extinction.

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But the path toward disaster—or toward salvation-- is never quite so straight and predictable as even the most highly trained experts imagine. As scientists began closing in on the root causes of CCD, a few consecutive hard winters accelerated the problem by killing even more bees, and then the decline appeared to slow. Bee populations have by no means recovered, but a stall in the downward slide has experts once again searching for clues.

While no single definitive answer has appeared that can easily explain the threat, here are a few of the top suspects:

·         An invasive species of pest called the varroa mite

·         Emerging diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis (a virus) and Nosema (a gut parasite)

·         Agricultural pesticide poisoning

·         Stressful changes to the bee’s habitat.

Two new developments are also intervening which appear to be affecting bee populations in real time:

·         Temperature and weather fluctuations have become more extreme as a result of rising global temperatures. While harsh winters have been shown to devastate populations of the bees themselves, how will extreme temperatures—from high heat to extreme cold, including unusually warm winters—impact populations of mites and gut parasites?

·         The EPA, the USDA and the Justice Department have taken on new leadership. Under the current administration, The EPA is working to reduce funding for the Justice Department, which relies on EPA support to prosecute environmental polluters. Here’s a brief update on these developing events.

The current EPA is also working to present itself as industry-friendly, which may undermine ongoing attempts to examine pesticide use, determine its impact on bee populations, and enforce appropriate regulations.

The release of this report  in 2013 by the EPA marked the high point of the pollinator crisis, but leadership changes in the EPA may alter the trajectory of progress made since the report’s release.

All the same, grant funding is still available for those who seek answers. If you’re working to resolve this mystery and follow the facts where they lead, get started by clicking here.  Meanwhile, contact our office for more information on where the honeybee crisis appears to be heading and why.