You've probably heard of it; it's been in the news. Bees are in trouble.
I watch the busy bees every day in my garden and I find it hard to tell what might be going on with them. First of all, there is more than one kind of bee. My big succulent is flowering and large black and yellow bumblebees are all over it. The rest of the garden, with a variety of colorful flowers, is visited by smaller black and yellow bees that I identify as honey bees. There appear to be a lot of them, so what's the problem?
Honey bees have been declining in 35 states and in Europe and South America. As many as 200,000 colonies may have already disappeared. The disaster is a mystery because no one knows what is causing the decline. One day a hive may be full and active and the next barren, with the bees literally disappearing overnight.
"The bees just take off from the hive and never return," one beekeeper said. "We don't even find any carcasses."
So far one-third of honey bees in the United States have disappeared. This phenomenon first came to light in 2006 and has grown worse every year since.
Honey bees are critical to agriculture. You may have seen the white beehive boxes set out in local fields. Commercial beekeepers transport the hives to farmers at their request to pollinate their crops.
One-third of all the food produced in the United States is pollinated by bees. Corn, wheat and rice are not affected but would provide us with monotonous and unsatisfactory nutrition if they were the only crops available.
Because of the needs of agriculture we rely on bees for more than what nature needs. As agriculture calls for bigger and bigger harvests, it bears the question, are we overworking our honey bees and other pollinators, possibly to death?
The life of some of the honey bees in a hive is limited. Worker bees live only 30 days. Some of them become foragers when three weeks old. At this time they communicate with other bees in the hive by performing a special dance using movement and sounds to relay specific sites where nectar may be found. In some cases new foragers are setting out but never return to perform the dance.
If a bee falls ill it leaves the hive to die in order to prevent the rest of the population from getting sick.
There is a name for the mysterious decline now, colony collapse disorder (CCD), and scientists are frantically trying to find out its cause. Everything from malnutrition to AIDS has been suggested.
Bees are adversely affected by toxic pesticides and the Varoa Destructor mite also kills them. But in this case the dead bodies are found. With colony collapse they just disappear. It might be that pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition could all be the cause.
Certain viruses are being explored and one type called IAPV (Israeli acute paralysis virus) has been found in the Israel, the United States, China, and Australia. But whether this is the culprit is not known.
The more hardy Africanized bees appear to be resistant to CCD and beekeepers are now encouraging them to interbreed with honey bees. In the meantime many keepers are using Australian bees to build up their depleted hives.
A new four-year research project will start soon with multiple universities taking part. If the cause of colony collapse disorder is not found soon, it is estimated there could be no honey bees in the United States by 2035.
Busy as a bee freelance writer and nature
photographer Ruth Ann Angus makes her hive
in Morro Bay. Wild Things is a regular
feature of The Bay News.