by Robbie Shell
1. First, a definition: Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony (hive) disappear, leaving behind a queen, food, nurse bees and baby bees. Without the mature worker bees to bring nectar and pollen back to the hive, it collapses (dies). CCD was first identified in 2006. Ever since, it has been a huge concern for the agricultural industry -- which relies on bees to pollinate crops -- and for commercial beekeepers, who earn most of their money renting out their bees to big farms around the country.
For example, California’s almond crop – estimated at somewhere around 800,000 acres – relies almost exclusively on billions of bees trucked in to pollinate almost 400 miles of almond groves stretched across the state’s Central Valley.
2. Keep in mind that CCD does not have just one cause: Many factors contribute to its presence, but two major culprits seem to be: overuse of pesticides (see next paragraph), and attacks from parasites (especially the deadly varroa mites) and pests (such as small hive beetles and wax moths).
3. The debate over what causes CCD frequently turns on the question of pesticides, or more specifically, insecticides, a type of pesticide designed to kill insects. Scientists are paying increasing attention to a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids (neonics, for short). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking into whether and how they disrupt bees’ nervous systems. Neonics are manufactured by chemical companies and sold to farmers who use them to eradicate pests on cotton, citrus plants, wheat and corn, among other crops. Chemical companies say the risk from neonics is overstated, and that they are necessary to protect our food supply.
What many scientists, environmentalists, and organic beekeepers do agree on is that all the different insecticides and herbicides used on farms and in fields -- as well as those sprayed in hives to fend off mites, fungi and other intruders -- create what has been called a “toxic soup” of chemicals. Chronic exposure to these chemicals, say opponents of pesticide use, can make it difficult for bee colonies to breed and resist disease.
4. Colony Collapse Disorder remains the subject of continually evolving new theories. Some scientists now suggest that climate change could throw off pollination schedules because warmer weather affects where plants grow and when they bloom. Bees may not be primed to meet the needs of these new schedules. Recent decisions by big agricultural producers to use all available soil for growing crops, thereby removing acres of land once filled with wildflowers and other sources of nutrition for bees, are cited as another potential contributor to CCD.
Then there are the spooky “ZomBees,” a term used to describe bees infected by parasitic “zombie flies.” Eggs laid by zombie flies in a bee’s abdomen hatch into larvae that eat away at the bee’s brain and wings. Disoriented by these attacks, the bees begin to behave in uncharacteristic ways. They leave their hives at night (which healthy bees rarely do), dance (not the helpful waggle kind), and then fall to the ground, crawling around blindly in circles until they die.
5. Some interesting, and discouraging, numbers: The U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) latest figures on honeybee mortality rates estimate that between April 2014 and April 2015, 42% of U.S. honeybee colonies died. This compares to 34% the preceding year. For the first time last year (2015), the number of honeybee deaths during the summer was greater than in the winter -- not a good sign given that hives are expected to be stronger and healthier in warm weather, and more stressed in the cold months.
The total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the USDA.
What’s clear is that everyone – no matter what they choose to blame CCD on – needs to work together to save the bees. As Sam’s father says in Bees on the Roof: “We’ve managed to create a society that’s in danger of killing them off. Bees have been around for what, millions of years? And here our highly sophisticated, technologically advanced, space age civilization seems to be doing nothing as they’re all destroyed.”
Robbie Shell is a former business journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer. She has worked and lived in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Bees on the Roof is her first work of fiction. Connect with Shell on Facebook, Goodreads and at www.beesontheroof.com.