Mystery of the disappearing bees: Solved!

By Richard Schiffman
April 9, 2012

If it were a novel, people would criticize the plot for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies disappear overnight without leaving a trace, the bodies of the victims are never found. Only in this case, it’s not fiction: It’s what’s happening to fully a third of commercial beehives, over a million colonies every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee and mother of the hive is abandoned to starve and die.

Thousands of scientific sleuths have been on this case for the last 15 years trying to determine why our honey bees are disappearing in such alarming numbers. “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” according to Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program.

Until recently, the evidence was inconclusive on the cause of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) that threatens the future of beekeeping worldwide. But three new studies point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected all along, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

In the U.S. alone, these pesticides, produced primarily by the German chemical giant Bayer and known as “neonics” for short, coat a massive 142 million acres of corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds. They are also a common ingredient in home gardening products.

Research published last month in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by the plants’ vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter on their rounds. They are a nerve poison that disorient their insect victims and appear to damage the homing ability of bees, which may help to account for their mysterious failure to make it back to the hive.

Another study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology journal implicated neonic-containing dust released into the air at planting time with “lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.”

Purdue University entomologists observed bees at infected hives exhibiting tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions, all signs of acute insecticide poisoning. And yet another study conducted by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health actually re-created colony collapse disorder in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of a popular neonic, imidacloprid.

But scientists believe that exposure to toxic pesticides is only one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees in recent years. The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of land development and the spread of monoculture agriculture, deprives pollinators of their diverse natural food supply. This has already led to the extinction of a number of wild bee species. The planting of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops – some of which now contain toxic insecticides within their genetic structure – may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems.

Every spring millions of bee colonies are trucked to the Central Valley of California and other agricultural areas to replace the wild pollinators, which have all but disappeared in many parts of the country. These bees are routinely fed high-fructose corn syrup instead of their own nutritious honey. And in an effort to boost productivity, the queens are now artificially inseminated, which has led to a disturbing decline in bee genetic diversity. Bees are also dusted with chemical poisons to control mites and other pathogens that have flourished in the overcrowded commercial colonies.

In 1923, Rudolph Steiner, the German founder of biodynamic agriculture, a precursor of the modern organic movement, predicted that within a hundred years artificial industrial techniques used to breed honey bees would lead to the species’ collapse. His prophecy was right on target!

Honey bees have been likened to the canaries in the coal mine. Their vanishing is nature’s way of telling us that conditions have deteriorated in the world around us. Bees won’t survive for long if we don’t change our commercial breeding practices and remove deadly toxins from their environment. A massive pollinator die-off would imperil world food supplies and devastate ecosystems that depend on them. The loss of these creatures might rival climate change in its impact on life on earth.

Still, this is a disaster that does not need to happen. Germany and France have already banned pesticides that have been implicated in the deaths of bees. There is still time to save the bees by working with nature rather than against it, according to environmentalist and author Bill McKibben:

“Past a certain point, we can’t make nature conform to our industrial model. The collapse of beehives is a warning – and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out how to work with bees not as masters but as partners offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas.”

PHOTO: A bumblebee sits on a rhododendron bloom on a sunny spring day in Dortmund, Germany, March 28, 2012. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

72 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Bees are migratory insects. They migrate on their own based on the environmental conditions that they currently inhabit.

YES! Pesticides can and DO have a large impact on the bees’ migratory patterns, however we cannot discount the other side of the coin;

Q: What happens to the bees who survive the pesticides, predator or disease in a new location??

A: The bees will usually enter a tree, bush or sturdy structure in a protected area difficult for predators to reach. Here in the United States, these protected areas are many times on our residential or commercial property.

At this point most companies or property owners ‘believe’ they have no choice but the quick and easy method of ‘extermination!’

Posted by cwcarlberg | Report as abusive

In the 8th paragraph, there is a link (non-gmoreport.com) to what is intended to be a credible source document that links GMO crops to bee deaths in general and colony collapse disorder. However, that article is speculative in nature. In fact, several recent studies shows very low correlation between proximity of hives to GMO crops and likelihood of CCD, for instance see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/art icle/pii/S0167587712002656.

As a trusted source of reliable information, I don’t think Reuters blogs should add links that improve the search engine rankings of less than reliable sources.

Posted by gtaniwaki | Report as abusive

what if bees cannot resist stinging stupid people? bees dissappear because more and more stupid people are getting stung. millions of colonies dissappear.

Posted by owigotstung | Report as abusive

No pesticides in Australia, and no colony collapse in Australia. The article indicates these pesticides are banned in “Bayer”‘s home country, Germany and also in France. Hmmm. Instead of a multi million dollar study why not just have our busy congressmen ban the importation and use of these chemicals for say three to five years and see if the Colony Collapse disorder stops. Gee, I wonder if those companies are using those chemicals on their “Organic” labeled crops. Since congress changed the definition of Organic for those companies I suppose no ban on importation. Looks like we need to change our legislators out.

Posted by 1953Stark | Report as abusive

If you believe that the EPA isn’t controlled, or at least influenced, by corporations like Bayer that make huge campaign contributions, you’re sadly mistaken and most likely Republican.

Posted by Hortdoc | Report as abusive

I live in Canyon Country California, for at least 10 years I would see 1 or 2 bees on my Bottle Brush and Nightblooming Jasmin.But this year for what ever reason there are bees every where. There acually becomming enoying.But I’m really glad there back.Though you all might like to know.

Posted by mellem | Report as abusive

Wow Why are worry about the Next Iphone or Android the more we invent the more we destroy hope my child gets to see the bees on her life time.

Posted by JuanluisHuerta | Report as abusive

I agree with Juanluishuetra i dont want to be on a strict diet of only corn and wheat for the rest of my life if we will even have life after bees! Just like Einstien said when honeybees go we go! please savedembeez

Posted by SAVEDEMBEEZ | Report as abusive

I”ve read Albert Einstein’s bio and he said so many years ago, five years without bees the world will end. I am so disturbed by the info I”ve been learning about the decline in bee population and the disgusting reasons why. Please folks keep writing or talking about this devasting situation with your politicians, friends, co-workers, etc. Wear a bumble bee pin to get the conversation going. Boycott buying all Bayer products and keep the word out there. Bee proactive till we see some results.

Posted by beealive | Report as abusive

For people like Ocala123456789 they should have a button to click like “dislike” or “stupid” or “uninformed”!
Without bees in the world, the world will be barren of plant life. We need bees to survive folks!!! Couple that with Monsanto creating seeds which will not reproduce year to year we are not only looking at a bee collapse but that of humans!
We have always felt secure/ smug that starvation happens elswhere but if something is not done, it will bee brought to our front doors! Sceam out loud to anyone who will listen, “I am mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore!!!”
Contact your senators & representative – enundate/deluge them with emails and faxes. If they don’t hear you, vote them out of office!
Before you vote a new one in, email & fax them that you are going to vote for them only one term unless they are a part of the solution to non-GMO seeds, the use of chem-trails, roundup & agent orange in seeds to repel insect and the creation of seeds which will not reproduce. All of which are for a good part responsible for the bee colony colapse and w/o bees all plant life will cease to exist. Folks we will live in a barren world and we will cease to exist!

Posted by Ladyfish | Report as abusive

Neonicotinoids are new enough to correlate with Colony Collapse in bee’s. Further, their massive distribution via big box stores and pretreatment of plants – the very method which makes them effective (retention in plant tissues) and in that of agricultural crops further correlates. It’s not just bee’s there is collapse of pollinators in general, for instance the monarch Butterflies. Add to this people used to ‘live’ with the fact their lawn would have some dandelions, now people seeking completely sterile lawns of green have eliminated clover and dandelion so efficently our vast tracks of grass are useless to pollinators. Plant some red clover everyone, its beautiful and the pollinators will thank you for it (plus its cheap and nitrogenates your soil).

Posted by Thefaceofthesun | Report as abusive

A friend of mine recommended me to your blog. This is just the kind of information I was looking for. I wish I have come across your blog much sooner.Looking forward to reading further tips and advice.