By Maurice Hladik – Growing up on the farm, my father had a few beehives so when I recently watched the documentary “What Are the Bees Telling Us?” It brought back fond childhood memories. For those who are interested in learning how to start a honey bee farm, it does a fine job on many fronts. However, based largely on opinions of those interviewed, it presents the colony collapse disorder (CCD) as a disaster for the honey industry and indeed for our entire food supply. It also answers the question “what causes colony collapse disorder” by pointing the finger at monoculture crops, genetically modified food plants and pesticides. A little research has uncovered some interesting facts that are quite the opposite of many claims made in the film.
If you are wondering: What is colony collapse disorder? As background, CCD was first detected late 2006 in the eastern U.S. and then identified elsewhere in the nation and globally soon after. According to the USDA, historically 17 to 20 percent of all hives normally suffer serious population reductions to the point of non-viability for a variety of reasons, but mostly overwintering and parasites. In these instances, the dead and still-living bees remain in or near the hives. With CCD, a beekeeper might have a normal robust hive on one visit, and on the next, find that the whole colony has “buzzed” off and the hive is devoid of living or dead bees. Where they disappear to is a mystery.
During the period from 2006 to 2008, USDA statistics show the level of non-viable colonies increased to 30 percent, which means that at least one out of 10 hives suffered from
CCD over this period. In more recent years, the incidence of CCD has been somewhat in decline, but nevertheless it still poses a serious problem for the honey industry and is too short a pe- riod to yet signal a positive trend.
However, in spite of this very real problem, reports of the death of the honey industry are greatly exaggerated. According to the latest USDA statistics, the average number of hives nationally for the CCD impacted period from 2006 to 2010 was 2,467,000 as reported by beekeepers, while for the five normal years previous to this, the average number of hives was a nearly identical 2,522,000. Indeed, the year with the most hives over the entire decade was 2010 with 2,692,000. The yield per hive did drop from an average of 71 pounds for the earlier part of the decade to 63.9 pounds from 2006 to 2010. While a bee population decline of 10 percent is certainly a significant loss in production, it is far from an industry collapse.
Will humans starve if honeybees are not out there for our food crops? While honeybees are considered to be great pollinators because they are domesticated and can be easily transported by the billions from all over the country to where they are needed for seasonal pollination, there are hundreds of native wild bee populations and other insect species that get the job done as well. Indeed, many do not realize that honeybees are not native to North America— just like cattle, sheep, horses, goats and chickens, they were introduced from Europe. There is even a written record of honeybees being shipped to Jamestown in 1621.
Are pollinators needed for all our food crops? Surprisingly, many of the major food sources that are in the grass family, such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley and rye, are pollinated by the breezes and are not attractive to pollinator insects. Then there are the root crops of carrots, turnips, parsnips and radishes, which are only really edible when harvested before they get to the flowering stage where pollination takes place. Yes, for next year’s crop a pollinator is needed for seed production, but this harvest is only a tiny proportion of the overall dedicated acreage of these vegetables. The same applies for above ground food plants such as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and celery, where we consume the plant in its early phases of growth with only a very small proportion of the total planting needed for pollinated seed production. Potatoes are another food crop that does not rely on the intervention of insects. Yes, tree fruits, nuts, tomatoes, peppers, soy beans, canola and a host of other plants require pollination from honeybees or other insects and would suffer if the honeybee population were to disappear. However, given the reasonably viable honeybee industry that does remain, plus all those wild pollinators, the food system is not on the verge of collapse, as the aforementioned documentary indicates.
Surprisingly, since 2006, in spite of the presence of CCD, apples and almonds, the two crops most depen- dent on honeybee pollination, have shown dramatic increases in yields per acre based on the number of hives rented for this purpose. According to USDA statistics, for almonds the yield average per acre was 1,691 pounds for the period 2000 to 2005 and an impressive 2330 pounds for the later years up to and including estimates for 2012—an increase of close to 33 percent. Of note is that every year in the later period, yields exceed all previous annual records. Similarly for apples, the early period had a yield of 24,100 pounds per acre while for the 2006 and later timeframe, the yield was up by 12 percent to 2,700 pounds. While advanced farming technology made the increased yields possible, all pollinators, and in par- ticular honeybees, stepped up to the plate and delivered their traditional part of the bargain. This fact is totally counterintuitive to the doomsday crowd’s concern that our food supply is in jeopardy.
Then what causes colony collapse disorder? As stated previously, the documentary blamed monocultures, farm chemicals and genetically modified food plants. Without getting too technical, scientists have listed about 10 possible causes, including these three. Many of these researchers are of the opinion that perhaps several of these factors are at play at the same time, depending on the location of the hives and conditions particular to that time and place. Thus, before the knee-jerk reaction of blaming con- ventional agriculture, there are a few fundamental facts that do not make these farming practices the “smoking gun” causing CCD.
Monocultures have been around for a century. In the 1930s, there were 20 million more acres of corn planted than in recent years. The peak number of acres farmed was in 1950, while today the total acreage in crops is about 85 percent of the level of the middle of the last century. Furthermore, for every acre of crop- land in the U.S., there are four others free from cultivation with a great variety of natural habitats, many of which are extremely attractive to honeybees. Past 2006, there has been no significant negative change in the landscape.
Regarding GMO crops, pollen from corn that is resistant to certain insect pests is considered to be a potential culprit. However, in a peer reviewed study conducted by the University of Maryland, a scientist working with normal, healthy populations in the open field and in the labs demonstrated that exposed to GM corn pollen had no negative im- pact on honeybees. Other published, peer-reviewed studies report similar results with few, if any, serious research projects having demonstrated the opposite. However, for non-GMO corn that requires insecticide treatment such as pyrethrins (used in organic farming), the bees were seriously impacted.
According to a 2007 survey of beekeepers by Bee Alert Technology Inc., only four percent of serious colony issues were caused by pesticides. The claim in the documentary about the harmful effects of insecticides does not seem to be fully justified if the actual practitioners caring for the bees do not think it to be a serious issue. In any event, as honeybees like to forage within only a one-mile radius or less of the hive (they can go greater distances, but honey gathering becomes inefficient), beekeepers with the above-mentioned option to seek out all sorts of suitable natural habitats can avoid intensive agriculture if they wish unless they are involved with dedicated crop pollination efforts. Yes, insecticides definitely kill bees, but good beekeepers know how to keep their portable hives out of harm’s way and if they have concerns about GMO corn, usually there is no need or purpose to place colonies near a cornfield.
Bottom line: CCD is a significant challenge facing the honey industry and for some individual producers, the impact is devastating. However, contrary to popular opinion, while hives collapse, the industry remains largely intact, food production does not seem to be threatened and advanced farming practices do not appear to play a significant role as the culprit. Perhaps there is a bit of overreaction to the issue. I hope this article helps answer what causes colony collapse disorder and helps to separate fact from fiction.
Maurice Hladik is the author of Demystifying Food From Farm to Fork.
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2012