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


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

I would strongly urge you to watch ‘Seeds Of Deception’ by Jeffrey Smith before you make any further comments on this subject. It’s 1.5 hours long video but I give you my word it will be the best 1.5 hr you have spent in your life. Monsanto is a terrorist organization, plain and simple. It needs to be stopped using any means necessary. The damage Monsanto has caused to US countryside is irreversible and irreparable. As if the damage caused by Frankenstein seeds is not bad enough they now want Frankenstein salmon too. It grows twice as fast as the normal one and if it escapes into wilderness you can kiss your natural salmon goodbye. On top of that, they have another 15 different species of fish waiting to go on steroids.

Posted by AnandaMayi | Report as abusive

Stop wishing and do something about it. For starters, quit thinking there is nothing you can do as that is exactly where your government wants you to be. The only limit you have is the one in your head, you have no idea what a difference you can make. Watch ‘Seeds Of Deception’ by Jeffrey Smith.It will open your eyes to the evil that is in force with government support hell bent on making you ill so that pharma companies can sell you the cure. Refuse to buy products unless they are labelled ‘GMO free’. Read about Codex Alimentarius, they make Nazis look like a bunch of boy scouts. And most importantly… spread the word around.

Posted by AnandaMayi | Report as abusive

Ocala123456789 -

I know that bees are socialist insects, but they’re probably not forming a honeycomb of sleeper cells in a conspiracy against capitalist corn conglomerates, as corn is wind pollinated. Other than corn and cannabis, though, you’d find precious little to eat or make rope with if the heroic worker bees were no longer around to run speed dating services for the entomophilous species.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

One paragraph from the article:
“…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…”
This issue goes way beyond the bees although as we read even just the bee issue is serious enough.
This is just a symptom of human attitude and behavior, as we behave like children released into a playground, thinking we can do with it whatever we want without any consequences, exploiting, harvesting, modifying all elements as we see it fit.
We continuously forget that we are not above nature, we are a single, albeit the most sophisticated species (thus whatever we do has the strongest influence on the system), and the laws governing nature’s vast system apply to us as well.
And we continuously violate these natural laws within human society too, exploiting each other in our pursuit for more profit and pleasure for ourselves.
It has been happening all through our history, but as our technological abilities developed, our population grew, and at the same time as we evolved into a global, integral system within humanity, and humanity with the environment today we have reached breaking point.
We are totally against all the laws in nature thriving for overall balance, homeostasis, we behave like cancer cells in a totally interconnected, interdependent system.
It is not even theory, or “mad prophecy” any more, countless of respectable, transparent, scientific studies, publications prove that we exist in an interconnected system, and the harm we are causing with our present behavior.
Thus beyond saving the bees we have a much stronger motivation to change our attitude, and start taking into consideration the whole system before any planning or action: securing our own survival.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive

It might be worth reconsidering the nutritional value of some of the bugs being killed with these pesticides. Some of them might be a sustainable source of food themselves, let alone the honey – which is getting very expensive these days.

Posted by Tiu | Report as abusive

Without the full picture (limited view), its a shot in the dark on what is up with nature. There is some things in mans ablity to controll, but his playing GOD is most destructive.

Posted by ccharles | Report as abusive

I’m always amused and dismayed by comments that reveal the lack of depth of the writer. The issue of bee population collapse is critical. There are likely many factors involved. This appears to be an important one. Bayer should show cause why their product should not be suspended pending further study. If they can make a case to an objective body then fine. If the body chooses to err on the side of caution, so be it.

Posted by Gatortrapper | Report as abusive

Thanks, shopgirl, but Oneafter909 got off the best line -

O, what mortals these bees fool!

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Bee who laughs last laughs hardest.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

God knows how many mutations these nerve agents have caused in insect population gene pools

Posted by DominicPaz | Report as abusive

The disastrous effect of application of Chemical pesticides has already been proven and we have already started using alternate methods for controlling pests. Chemical pesticides not only have destroyed Ecological Balance, killed natural predators and parasites but have also caused resurgence of resistant pests. Therefore it`s the need of the day to substitute Chemical pesticides with alternate but effective use of alternate methods like pheromone traps, sticky traps, light traps, crop rotation,Biological agents such as Beneficial bacteria and fungi like Beauvaria bassiona , Verticellium lecanii, Mettarhizium anisophilae, Pseudomonas fluorescence, and Trichoderma viride to control pests . These methods are however slow but steady and hence we should follow a system of the importation of such biocontrol agent but also thrive to augument their population and conservation .

Posted by gerextreme | Report as abusive

This shows the utter hypocrisy of the Obama administration and its land grab and increased government control as per Agenda 21, supposedly in the name of environmental protection while, at the same time, his appointees at the FDA, USDA, HHS, and EPA refuse to ban toxic pesticides; refuse to ban toxic fertilizers; refuse to ban toxic lawncare chemicals; refuse to ban fluoride or fracking; and refuse to ban or even label GMO’s, ALL OF WHICH have synergistically caused the decline of THIS most important of endangered species: the honeybee, whose endangerment is directly tied to our own. If only the honeybees had the power, influence, and money of Bayer, Monsanto, and other chemical companies.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Iam a beekeeper and have been for a short while (about 5 yesrs). Each year I have lost from 50% to 100% of my hives to CCD. Each hive lost is about $100 US to replenish the bees, and like others have said, the high demand of replacement bees is deteriorating the quality of the bees. Most of the Obama admistration’s argicultural appointees are former high level exectives of Monsanto, and they are obviously going to appose labeling or discontinuing GMO crops and protect big business pestisides that have been proven to cause bee deaths. They have even allowed Monsanto to patent heirloom seed varities that have been around for centuries, and Monsanto had nothing to do with their creation. The bees are TELLING US SOMETHING here, we better start listening.

Posted by BeeKeeper | Report as abusive

I heard the b’s are flowing in bradenton florida, joey spivey has em for sale $300 a zip lock

Posted by chipdiesel | Report as abusive

You think they could have used a honey bee pictures for the article?

Posted by Jules99 | Report as abusive

Nope it’s global warming. Whenever you don’t know the answer to anything bad in nature, always say “global warming.” Herp derp.

Posted by AndrewOLeery | Report as abusive

In my small home garden, I noticed an INCREASE of bees. I absolutely loved watching them buzz around and pollinate my plants. This year, my garden grew fabulously. I use no pesticides, nor any sort of weed killers. We grow enough vegetables to share with the bugs, the bees, the small “pests”, and us.

It’s a shame to hear of these colonies disappearing from CCD. My sympathies go out to all the bee keepers who are trying to maintain their hives.

Posted by AmyNBobby | Report as abusive

Granted, GMO food sources have a huge impact on quite a few things, including us, but apparently nobody has considered one of the OTHER MAJOR issues regarding the bee devastation and depopulation, namely, Cellular Phone Transmissions. Many government “Authorities” would have us believe that the exposure we, as humans, are subjected to from these towers and devices are so small that they would claim that the radio wave emissions are harmless. Sorry, but radiation is still radiation. It’s only considered harmless because our bodies are a little better equipped to handle it. Bees, on the other hand, don’t seem to be so equipped. RF (radio frequency) radiation, even in very small quantities, can have an extremely detrimental effect on any kind of organic matter. Not long ago, “RF Bleed” was connected to some brain cancers from cellular phone use, thus the reason that we now have “Hands Free” headsets (bluetooth). While this kind of radiation is fairly common in today’s society, and has been shoved onto the back burner and poo-poo’d by mainstream science as ‘Nothing to be concerned about”, apparently it’s a contributing factor in bee depopulation. For example, when was the last time that you saw or heard about bee hives or nests anywhere near Cellular towers or even high tension electrical transmission towers? The bees generally stay clear of these areas because they can’t handle the frequencies that these things put out. Sure, we humans seem just fine being bathed continuously in 60HZ RF Bleed, but consider how you feel the next time you have a power outage. While your ears will probably still be ringing from the total silence, if you actually try to notice it, you’ll feel much more relaxed and at ease. Once the power comes back on though, it’s all over. Not that I’m condoning any kind of legislation which would curtail where these sites are located, but unless we do something, our food chain, which relies heavily on the bees spreading the pollen around, is going to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Posted by Phoenix2012 | Report as abusive

I’m a beekeeper with many hives throughout my area and I too have seen losses (some to CCD) that cause me to replace hives every year. I’m doing my part, and try to educate my neighbors whenever possible to lower they alery threshhold when my girls fly into their year and pools. I try to go a chemical free as possible in the hive and on my grass, but if I did not treat with the hives something, I’d lose all my hives to one thing or another. I too would love to see a list of items that contain neonicotinoids. I’d hate to think I have this stuff in my shed or garage.

Posted by WellStungApiary | Report as abusive

How many more warning signs shall we need to realize that we are killing ourselves and other creatures along the way.
Nature is our partner and must be treated with respect otherwise we shall be the victims

Posted by GateauOchocolat | Report as abusive