The Secret Lives of Honey Bees

A carpenter bee landed on a woman's hand

My wife, the bee whisperer…

I freaking love bees.

I didn’t always do so.  As a child, I seemed to get stung more regularly than most.  On time, at the local public pool I was hit a few times in a row including inside my mouth.  Granted, there’s a bunch of different types of stinging insects, but frankly as a child they were all “bees” to me.

Things changed sometime in late middle school.  At the time I was still in the Boy Scouts but I was never a very good scout and had no interest in merit badges.  For those of you familiar with scouting, this greatly limited my ability to advance in the scouts, but I digress.  The one badge I specifically sought out:  beekeeping.

One of the scout masters kept bees in his backyard.  He had maybe two or three hives if memory serves and he volunteered to work with us through the steps of the badge.  We learned about bee physiology and their life cycle, how they organized the hive, and all that jazz.  Learning about them helped me to become less frightened and while I’m not exactly lining up to volunteer to get stung, I no longer worry about it so much.

But in 2006, beekeepers began to report significant reductions in bee populations.  This wasn’t the first time that bee colonies died off; it happens due to abnormal weather patterns or other environmental situations.  And, often, these die-offs remain unexplained.  But, this more recent die-off continued and its similarities with earlier ones created enough of a pattern that they all gained a common name:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

Colony Collapse Disorder

So why should we care?  This is likely information that you already know, but just in case you only think of bees as hurtful pests that ruin summer afternoons, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report “estimates that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.”  That’s a lot of food supplies that rely on bees to reproduce

There’s a lot of information at the above liked wikipedia article but to summarize, colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the sudden and disappearance of worker bees from a beehive.  The European Union and the United States have tracked the situation quick carefully.  During a normal winter, you might see a quarter of your bee population die off from normal causes.  However, in a hive that suffers from CCD, the numbers can be closer to 50% or more.  In the US, it’s estimated that the bee population has declined from almost 6 million insects in the middle of the 20th century to around 2.4 million in 2008.

Neonicotonoids

It’s causes are disputed, but the European Union has noticed that rise in CCD was correlating to an increase in the use of a certain type of pesticides called neonicotinoids.  If you dig into that word a bit you might notice something similar:  the word nicotine.  These are pesticides based on the same drug found in cigarettes which is not only dangerous for mammals but also for insects.  Neonicotinoids are nicotine-like chemicals that we’ve developed to be less harmful to mammals but remain lethal to bugs.  Most frightening to me is that these chemicals are water-soluble, meaning that the dissolve in water, and as a result they can be sprayed on the ground, dissolved into the water that falls on it, and then drawn up into the plants themselves so that insects that consume them die off there after.

The EU released a study this past January that indicated three specific neonicotinoids that may pose a greater risk to bee populations than some others.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, the variables in the situation make it incredibly difficult for scientists to definitively say that the use of them directly leads to CCD.  Worse, the causes of CCD are generally disputed and in addition to neonicotinoids other causes, including various fungi, have been theorized.

But, earlier this week, in what I feel is a major win for those of us who worry about these sorts of things, the EU ruled that starting no later than December 1, 2013, certain types of neonicotinoids would be banned for use as a pesticide for two years.  During this time, the EU would try to determine if this change alters the resulting health of beehives in the area.  The voting was not enough to ban the pesticides outright, but so it falls to the EU Commission to enforce the ban.  It is the Commission that reported on the December 1 start to the ban.

In the US, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Department of Agriculture are taking a bit more of a wait in see approach. I’ve previously found information about CCD on the USDA website here, even as recently as yesterday, but it doesn’t appear to be working this morning.  Similar to the dissenting votes in the EU, the US government feels that the exact causes of CCD are unknown and that more study is necessary.  Personally, I agree that the causes are unknown, but I applaud that the EU in actually trying to see if they can better determine those causes through experimentation.

Bee Activism

So what can we do about it?  This is an activist blog after all.  In many ways, if you care about bees like I do, the most obvious thing to do is keep some bees!  Apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) is fascinating but considering the danger of allergies and the general dislike for stinging insects, the comfort of your family and neighbors should be considered, as well as the local laws, before you go down that road.

Another, and perhaps more easily handled, way is to get your hands on the Queen of the Sun and share it with others.  Here’s the trailer:

The producers of the film have additional information on their site about how you can help even if you don’t want to keep bees.  Most accessible is their top-10 list of things to do to help bees.

About David Dashifen Kees

David is a professional web application developer working for a major US University and freelancing as time permits.
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3 Responses to The Secret Lives of Honey Bees

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