Silence of the Bees
Impact of CCD on US Agriculture

In the winter of 2006/2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies — accounting for tens of billions of bees — were lost to CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. This loss is projected have an $8 billion to $12 billion effect on America’s agricultural economy, but the consequences of CCD could be far more disastrous.

The role honeybees play in our diet goes beyond honey production. These seemingly tireless creatures pollinate about one-third of crop species in the U.S. Honeybees pollinate about 100 flowering food crops including apples, nuts, broccoli, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, celery, squash and cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, melons, as well as animal-feed crops, such as the clover that’s fed to dairy cows. Essentially all flowering plants need bees to survive.

A daunting question is: If honeybee colonies were so severely affected by CCD that pollination stopped, could we lose these crops from our markets and our diets forever?

 

Honeybees pollinate about 100 flowering crops.

“We’re not there yet,” says Jeff Pettis of the USDA. Pettis says there are steps researchers and beekeepers can take to ensure that the bee population doesn’t plummet to catastrophic levels. “One measure beekeepers have been taking is to keep bees as healthy as possible — improve nutrition and reduce stress,” says Pettis. Consumers have become more demanding and expect to have fruits and vegetables available to us all year round. In order to achieve this, commercial beekeepers haul colonies of honeybees across the country so their pollination services can serve all growing seasons. The season may start with almonds in California, then move on to apples in the Northwest, cranberries in New Jersey and Maine blueberries. The constant moving about places stress on the bees. In addition, certain crops that may be in the pollination circuit, like cranberries and cucumbers, are not very nutritious for bees. To keep the bees healthy, beekeepers may need to ease up on their schedules. It may be necessary for them to retire bees for a particular season or skip some less nutritious crops entirely.

Of course, nature has its own safeguards to keep crops pollinated. Honeybees aren’t our only pollinators. Other insects and birds pollinate fruits and vegetables as well. The problem with other natural pollinators picking up the bees’ slack is that today’s agricultural industry has simply grown too large for them to keep up. The leviathan that is U.S. agriculture creates a huge demand for pollination. Because honeybees are relatively mobile and can pollinate a generous number of crops, they have been the ideal recruits to meet our crop needs. But honeybees don’t perform such feats naturally without help — lots of it. Commercial beekeepers keep colonies nourished and healthy and move their hives from state to state in semis, selling their pollination services to farmers at a premium.

With the threat of CCD looming, researchers are starting to study how other pollinators like the larger bumble bees could step in for honeybees. “The Dutch have figured out how to use bumblebees,” says Pettis. Bumblebees share many similarities with honeybees. Both are social nesters, although the bumblebees’ society is not as highly ordered as that of honeybees. Also, bumblebees make a new nest each spring by solitary queens, who hibernate through the winter. Honeybees remain in the old nest.

Perhaps the biggest consideration is an economic one. Bumblebees last just 2 months and cost $200 per colony, whereas honeybees can last several months in the summer with colony rentals running only $100 to $140. As a result, the use of bumblebee pollination is usually confined to high-value crops like tomatoes. Clearly, the use of bumblebees is a step in the right direction, but not a final solution.

“There’s nothing waiting in the wings that can replace honeybees at this time,” says Pettis, “but we can solve the problem in honeybee health.” Pettis says that by focusing on reducing stress and improving nutrition, beekeepers can limit some of the factors that potentially lead to disastrous conditions like CCD, thereby keeping bees — and our diets — healthy.

  • Jim Howard

    The show made clear an interesting fact: The normal insect and rodent invaders, that would normally take advantage of an abandoned honeybee hive, DO NOT invade a CCD hive.
    The hive invaders can detect the symptoms of a sick hive and avoid it, thus the CCD condition is perceived by these animals.
    But what is it that these animals are detecting? A smell? A taste?
    Perhaps by studying the would-be invaders, and what they perceive, can shed some light on this terrible problem.

  • larry deemer

    Generally excellent and engaging presentation. One major omission: any reference to the role of native “wild” or solitary bees in pollination, vulnerability to the suspected agents of CCD in honey bees, the spread of the CCD phenomenon, and potential for contributing to solutions. This omission is remarkable since native solitary bees are more efficient pollinators (possibly 80X more) than honey bees. I would hope that this omission would be rectified in any follow-up report, even if it is only to disclose the causes/extent of decline in native wild bees and that they have no relation to the cause(s) of the decline of honey bees.

    One minor deficiency in the report: the appearance of a pathogen (I think it was a bacterium) in all hives was a reason for discounting that pathogen as a major cause of CCD but the appearance of the Israeli-type virus in all hives somehow was not grounds for discounting it but was presented as a favorable factor in making the virus a culprit in the demise of the bees. Seems like a contradiction or incomplete reporting.

    Thanks for this timely investigative report and especially so for presenting it in advance of any definitive conclusion to the bee decline story. The effect on public awareness was sufficient justification for presenting the problem (and the initial scientific sleuthing) even without a satisfactory solution/conclusion.

  • Bill Brandt

    There are so many interesting facts that I am watching this a 2nd time to absorb. Many things to comment on, but one outstanding thing is the harm insufficient and poor scientific testing and analysis – the program debunked the use of cell phone radio waves as a cause. And this was all caused by a German scientist who did a simple test with a cell phone near a hive.Fhe “findings” went around the world…

    Once could take this “insufficient scientific analysis” to all sorts of current day topics…

  • Rue Gomes

    Very horrifying to think of a world without bees. Wonder if anyone has considered the long lasting affects of pesticides? Just because bees dies off immediately on a concentration of pesticides , does not mean they don’t die off later on “after effects”. When one thinks about it , in this world & day& age is there truly any organic plants left? I don’t think so. The compounding & even the most miniscule remants of chemicals could do harm.

  • diane lopez

    i live in the central higlands of mexico and watched this program via big dish, my husband is a firefighter for our city and gets bee calls all the time. sometime s they have to kill the bees due to agressive behavior to children and farm anamils. he and several fire fighters know of the problem and try to save the bees , either by bagging them or getting a bee keeper to rescue them. i liked your story as he did, but what more can we do? to save the bees? we want to help how can we. he is interviewed on radio 1 time per month how can he present this topic ? we raise in this area broccoli, cabbage, squach, spinnich, tomatoes and carrots so bee are a need here. also corn. thank you and please follow this up with what are the results of any new studies. thank you diane

  • Ralph M Woods

    In the discussion of the bumblebees are they affected as the honeybees?

  • concerned mom of 2

    I am curious if there is a link, in addition to Rue Gomes’ posting of pesticides, between CCD and GMO plants?

  • Meli

    Let’s review.

    The United States LOST HALF OF ITS BEE COLONIES IN THE PAST TWO YEARS.

    This not only cost beekeepers and farmers billions, which has been passed on to the consumer along with the increased cost of carbon fuels used to transport foods…it also does not bode well for the future of agriculture, as many of us here recognize.

    Neo-nicotinoid pesticides are effectively lethal to bees at 0.1 parts per billion, have been banned in France and Germany, and are used on (vague estimate) hundreds of millions of United States food crops.

    Other chemicals and GMO crops and God knows what else in our man-made toxic soup may also be killing bees, but this one’s a no-brainer. HOW does it make SENSE?

    Neo-nicotinoid pesticides are killing bees. They must be banned. Demand that your legislator do something today.

    Find your congressperson here, cut and paste:
    https://forms.house.gov/wyr/welcome.shtml

    Find your senator here:
    http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm

  • Chris Turnbull

    One thing that all of us can do to help is to make our homes and gardens as bee friendly and as conducive to alternate pollinators such as solitary bees as possible. Plant a wide variety of flowering plants, let land return to native vegetation and don’t mow unused land all the time, let the wildflowers grow on it. And avoid chemicals and pesticides.

  • Russ Hoover

    This could be coincidence, but every year around this time I’m always fighting off flies and wasps that hang around the front door & windows. This year I’ve seen none. There’s been a few gnats but even they seem thinned out. The other day a fly got into my car apparently through the window & it was about half the size they’ve been in the past. Mind you I’m not complaining but it’s been noticeable & might be related to what’s happening in the bee world.

  • Wort

    Honey is 75% composed of two simple sugars: dextrose and levulose. These are more easily assimilated than cane, beet or corn sugar, which must first be broken down by digestive fluids into simple sugars. Honey also contains many vitamins and enzymes. However, most commercial beekeepers, after harvesting the honey, feed their bees sugar water; many use corn syrup and even High Fructose Corn Syrup. Neither of these are anywhere near as nutritious as the honey that bees are designed to eat, and we already know the long-term, devastating effects of these man-made sweeteners on humans. This could be a contributing factor as well. Yes, they’ve been doing this for years, but we are just now recognizing the burgeoning epidemics of degenerative diseases caused by HFCS in humans. Perhaps, along with all the other potential factors (pesticides, herbicides, monocropping, etc.), this could be compounding the problem. In any case, it can’t be good for bees.

  • Ashley

    For my History Class, I have to write a paper on Honeybees. I chose honey bees because I wanted to argue about a specie that SHOULD be saved, unlike my other papers where I argued that some animals have not enough value in the world for us to waste our time and resources on them. However, after further research (and looking over this VERY helpful site) I am starting to wonder if there is anyway to save them at all. I am at a loss. If anyone has an opinion, please voice it!
    Thanks!

  • Cecilia

    I am a new bee keeper in training; this year will be my first hive. I’m really interested in your information on pollution masking the scent of flowers. A veteran bee keeper I know lost 20 hives this past year. Recently a lot of information has come out about Outdoor wood furnaces in our area. They are large water jacketed burners that heat homes. An article shared that the DEP and EPA in our New England Region reported a study where these machines created emissions equal to 53 diesel trucks idling in people’s yards. It also talked about chemicals and creosote they create due to incomplete combustion and that benzene is also created and because of its chemical formation is heavy and stays close to the ground rather than getting carried away. The bee keeper I spoke of lives across the street from one of these. In the paper there was another article referencing neighbors having severe side effects, asthma, heart pounding, their kids on nebulizers, etc. It is a big, hidden, pollution problem that the EPA and many states have not set standards for and they are populating by the thousands in our environment. I wonder if there is a link and if any of the other hive collapses where near one of these? Keep up the great work and the questions going, this is so important.

  • Lori King

    Maybe someone can shed some light on all the chem trails in the skies, who’s responsible for them ? , are these chemicals responsible for the depletion of our bees and many respiratory illness. What kind of study if being done in our skies?

  • Dan Merrill

    CCD struck a great blow to France as well – in 1994. But their bees have been recovering the past few years, and the crisis has passed. Back in 1994, a brand-new insecticide named GAUCHO had just been authorized, containing imidacloprid (IMD). Bayer CropScience had tested whether this product would be safe for bees, and concluded that it was fine. However, French scientists contested this conclusion, exposing bees to smaller quantities of IMD than Bayer had. In the Bayer experiments, the bees had recognized the larger amounts of poison and avoided it, but when only trace amounts of the poison were present, the bees didn’t notice and were decimated by it. France banned IMD and the similar Fipronil, and after they went out of use, the bees recovered.

    Then in 2002, the EPA under the Bush Administration loosened restrictions on pesticides and the use of IMD became widespread in America. Shortly afterwards, CCD devastates honey bees in the states where IMD is in use. August 9, 2005, Bayer CropScience meets with the EPA to talk about speeding up the permanent approval process for pesticides. The retain their claim that IMD use doesn’t harm bees, ignoring the findings of the French scientists. The media ignores France as well, grabbing headlines with talk of the Great Honeybee Mystery. (Source: A Spring Without Bees by Michael Schacker.)

    A few days ago, on March 24, CBS news reported that pesticides are coming under closer scrutiny in response to this crisis. Federal courts are ruling that the EPA overlooked a requirement in allowing a pesticide on the market. And Bayer CropScience has started complaining.

  • John Payette

    I just saw the program on Discovery World. I had a thought I think is worth investigation. I hope we’re not still having this problem 3 years later

    I am a medical professional and part of my education is about nutrition. I learned that we need a balanced diet of a lot of fruits and minerals that come from a wide variety of sources. I’ve also seen lots of programs of how the loss of prey affects a predator’s territory. I also grew up on a farm. I think it stands to reason that by reducing the variety of flowers and pollen sources the bee’s have and only allowing them a few pollen sources on a mass scale, and a much smaller amount of variety they would not get all the minerals they need and become nutrient deficient, making them susceptible to things they would normally be able to fight. Pesticides likely contribute too.

    There are easy and natural solutions to this. If farmers planted flowers around, near, or among their crops that also attracted other desirable predator bugs to eliminate the bugs the pesticides are supposed to kill, then there would be no need to spray. It’s well known that ladybugs eat aphids. They must eat other things too. A few years ago my area had an over population of aphids so the municipality released 2 million lady bugs. After the aphid situation was announced to be over, we had no potato bugs and very few other bugs other harmful bugs in our vegetable garden. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_bug . Dragonflies are also useful http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragonfly . We should figure out how to farm on an industrial scale, like the way things are in nature. If there is no balance, something HAS to give. It’s the way of all systems.

  • Student

    you guys…this suucks.

  • christopher adam murphy

    Blah Blah Blah, DO YOU WANT THE SOLUTION TO THIS QUANDRY? I got it….I B Leave it is possible that the humans mastery of bees has put bee populations in narrower genetic groups , (we r causing the problem despite good intent)……..it is probable that diversity of genetic code that keep species robust is being squeezed 2 the point that the gene is king, dash, dash, dash, QUEEN! i got it figured out and the MurphDog wants cred. let the bees rome free…… like the BEE 50 2’s, PBS NPR and Eminem!

  • gom

    it is interesting subject whati love to do .i love bees while i m child.there are some bees haves in my house which are keeping as traditional way. i want producative way of bee keeping in my home town Nepal. if anybody have any idea please write me about it .or any links please sent me .
    thankssssss

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.