One Year Later: Colony Collapse Disorder

BY / POSTED April 17, 2012

First, some background:

Around this time last year, bees were all over the news. Apiarists, nature-lovers and scientists claimed that honeybees were dying out. Entire hives were collapsing, and no one was sure why. I took a look at this phenomenon — colony collapse disorder, or CCD — in an earlier post, and though I tried to cook up a good CCR/CCD joke, my heart wasn’t in it. In fact, the more I read about CCD the more nervous I became.

For the record: Creedence Clearwater Revival has nothing to do with the widespread disappearance of bees. (Photo via the Hulton Archive.) For the record: Creedence Clearwater Revival has nothing to do with the widespread disappearance of bees. (Photo via the Hulton Archive.)

Colony collapse disorder is some creepy, ominous stuff. Imagine the honeybee version of the colonial Roanoke disappearance: Across the United States and Europe, worker bees are abruptly vanishing from their hives. And if they’re leaving clues — some insect version of the “CROATOAN” carving — our species has yet to figure it out. Sure, there are loads of hypotheses about the causes of CCD, but no definitive conclusions. This may change soon. Last year’s post cited a leaked EPA memo, in which the EPA’s own scientist raise serious concerns about how a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids can affect beehives. At the time the EPA did not seem to share these concerns, as neonicotinoids are still legal in the United States (although their status will be reviewed later this year).

But there’s a new development here. As mentioned by the Chicago Tribune, two recent studies in the journal Science have found that bees exposed to this type of pesticide gain less weight and have a tougher time finding their way home after a pollen run. The scientific community is still perusing the research, and not everyone agrees with the studies, but the evidence against these pesticides is building.

We can’t grab our pitchforks and round up a crazed mob just yet. As tempting and convenient as it may be to blame CCD on a single factor, it’s still bad science. Other proposed causes include fungal infections, viruses, mites or even cell phone interference — and, increasingly, scientists believe that an interaction between several factors may produce CCD. What if there are multiple causes? In a recent article by the New York Times, bee expert Jeffrey Pettis argues that exposure to “neonicotinoids in low doses make honeybees more vulnerable to disease.” As research continues we’ll learn more about exactly what’s killing the bees, how CCD works and, hopefully, how to prevent it.

Currently there’s no evidence of corruption within the EPA’s handling of this issue, but when cases like this develop it’s easy to see how conspiracy theories can run wild. And let’s not forget: We could have had a two-year jump start if the EPA had listened to their experts in the first place.

What do you think about colony collapse disorder? Have you noticed any change in your local bee population? Let me know what you think in the comments, and check out our episode if you’d like to know more about CCD conspiracy theories.

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