We've had bees on the brain here in the HowStuffWorks office. Lauren and Joe from Fw: Thinking just did a podcast episode where they researched robotic bees and using bees as bomb/drug detectors by placing them inside weird cartridge gun things. Then we shot a video episode for BrainStuff about Colony Collapse Disorder. In a nutshell CCD is a phenomenon where massive bee populations are disappearing from their hives. This is not only puzzling, it also has dramatic consequences for the agricultural industry.
Everyone from beekeepers to the government are searching for ways to solve the CCD epidemic. The USDA's internal Agricultural Research Service is trying to improve bee management practices, while searching for ways to control bee diseases and parasites. Simultaneously, both Federal and State agencies are conducting their own studies, while universities and the private sector seek the cause(s) for CCD.
The most prevalently talked about solution is to find alternative pollinators to honey bees. See, the commercial honeybees used in agricultural production are only a fraction of the overall bee population. And other bees (Africanized honey bees for instance) don't seem affected by CCD. Commercial honey bees weren't even present in the Americas until the Spanish introduced them in the 16th century... to improve honey production. Yet there are thousands of native bee species on the continent. So how can we make our crops more attractive to all these other bees? One step would be to restore wild habitats around farms. Other bee species may thrive there, supplementing the disappearing honeybee populations. The multitude of native bee species are also more likely to recover from disease and extreme weather. To pull this off, farms would need to divide their crops into blocks that bloom at different times, with diverse enough flora that attract a variety of native bees.
There's an assortment of other attempts to solve CCD. New treatments are being developed for the ominously named bee disease "foulbrood." And different traps are being designed to prevent small hive beetles from disrupting bees. There's also all kinds of new ways to kill Varroa mites, who drain bees from the inside out like vampires. Acid pads, oil strips and a chemical called ApiVar are all used to control these parasites. Some beekeepers even sterilize old beehive frames with gamma rays before reuse, claiming it cuts down on CCD.
Beekeepers are also starting to pamper their hives a little more. Some use emulsified oil products to keep their bees alive. Others try to improve bee nutrition with supplemental feeds for their colonies, like sugar or corn syrup. There's a chance these supplements may actually leave the bees less capable of fighting off infections, but some beekeepers are desperate enough at this point that they're willing to take the chance. It's also been recommended that beekeepers feed honey bees more protein when they're short on nectar during droughts or winter. The Agricultural Research Service has actually developed a special bee diet for these cases, called "MegaBee."
Ideally, bees would be vaccinated against potential killer viruses. But their invertebrate immune system won't protect them in the same way that vaccines do in humans. As an alternative, researchers are trying a technique called RNA interference to block the viruses from reproducing in bee cells.
Breeding virus-resistant honeybees may also work, but it could take years to do so, when the extinction clock is already ticking on their population. Another breeding strategy would be to increase the amount of bees a hive produces, to offset those killed by CCD. To do this, keepers have to prompt bee workers to feed their queen ample amounts of the royal jelly they secrete from their glands. Once she devours the jelly, she becomes super-fertile, producing even more larvae than normal.
After all these potential solutions, you might be asking yourself, "What you can I do to help?" There's two things actually. First, if you don't use pesticides on your lawn and garden it will help maintain habitats for pollinators. You could even plant a specific garden for bees with flowers like rosemary, geraniums, lavender, poppies and sunflowers. Second, buying locally produced honey will support the beekeepers in your area. Or if you really want to get hands on with it, start a hive of your own. One of my family friends maintains her own hive and loves it. The American Beekeeping Federation has lots of information on how you can do it yourself.
- Bjerga, Alan. "U.S. Queen Bees Work Overtime to Save Hives." Bloomberg Businessweek. Issue 4222. March 28, 2011
- Calderon, N. & Sheppard, S. "Build a Better Bee." Bee Culture. Volume 138. Issue 11. Pages 23-25. 2010.
- Cox-Foster, Diana & vanEngelsdorp, Dennis. "Saving the Honeybee." Scientific American. Col. 300. Issue 4. April 2009.
- Walsh, Bryan, "The Plight of the Honeybee." Time. Vol. 182. Issue 8. 8/19/2013
- Wertheimer, Kate. "6 Smart Ways to Save the Planet." Natural Health. Vol. 42, Issue 4. April/May 2012.