Saving the Honeybee

by Catherine Haug

This is a synopsis of a long article from Scientific American, April 2009 magazine, by Diana Cox-Foster and Dennis vanEngelsdorp:  Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees” (original title: ‘ Saving the Honeybee’).  See also a sidebar to this article:  Wild Pollinators Are Ailing, Too.

To me, CCD is the canary in the mine: warning of a dire future if we don’t pay attention.  Our monoculture ag system is at the root of the problem and should be discarded if our planet is to survive.

“The mysterious ailment called colony collapse disorder [CCD] has wiped out large numbers of the bees that pollinate a third of our crops.  The causes turn out to be surprisingly complex, but solutions are emerging.

Key Concepts

  • Millions of beehives worldwide have emptied out as honeybees mysteriously disappear, putting at risk nearly 100 crops that require pollination.
  • Research is pointing to a complex disease in which combinations of factors, including farming practices, make bees vulnerable to viruses.
  • Taking extra care with hive hygiene seems to aid prevention. And research into antiviral drugs could lead to pharmaceutical solutions.”

NOTE:  You can purchase an audio version of the original Scientific American article at  Or refer to Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees for an online version.

Saving the Honeybee:  A synopsis

CCD:  Significant Global Impact

In the U.S., honeybees are used to “pollinate crops as diverse as Florida melons, Pennsylvania apples, Maine blueberries and California almonds.”

But over the course of 1 month in the fall of 2006, one man’s bees were devastated; losing more than half of his 3,000 hives…yet no dead bees were in sight. A 2007 study revealed that over 1/4 of U.S. beekeepers had suffered similar losses; the winter of 2008 showed more loses all over the world. 

This is raising global alarms because over 1/3 of all ag production depend on honeybees for pollination.  “Large, monoculture farms require intense pollination activity for short periods of the year, a role that other pollinators such as wild bees and bats cannot fill.”

The loss of hives would be devastating to our tables; we would lose most fruits and veggies we routinely consume, including apples, blueberries, broccoli and almonds.

In Search of Cause

Many possible contributing factors, and multiple infecting pathogens (including a virus) have been identified, but no single cause has been determined.  Researchers are concluding that the solution is taking better care of the environment and making long-term changes to our beekeeping and agricultural practices.

Similarly, no single beekeeping management method could be blamed.  Each of the following were affected:

  • both large-scale commercial operations and small scale hobbyists; 
  • both stationary and migratory hives; and
  • organic hives.

    Many researchers blame the problem on decreasing nutritional quality for the bees: today they pollinate large acreages of one crop, rather than the multiple historical sources including wildflowers and diverse garden crops.  Yet the use of protein supplements has not, on its own, prevented CCD.

      A Reasonable Culprit?

      One virus stood out:  IAPV (Israeli acute paralysis virus).  It was found in almost all colonies with CCD symptoms and in only one operation that was not suffering from CCD.  But this is not conclusive because CCD could have just made the bees exceptionally vulnerable to IAPV infection. 

      Additionally, IAPV is widespread in the U.S. and not all infected colonies had symptoms of CCD, indicating that either the virus is not the sole cause, or some bees are IAPV-resistant.

      The Growing Consensus

      Multiple factors including poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides can interact to weaken colonies and make them susceptible to a virus-mediated collapse (such as IAPV).  

      At the time this article was written, new studies into the affect of the fungicide chlorothalonil have begun.


      “Many beekeepers have had some success at preventing colony loss by redoubling their efforts at:

      • improving their colonies’ diets, 
      • keeping infections and parasites such as varroa and nosema in check,
      • practicing good hive hygiene. 

      And simple changes in agricultural practices such as breaking up monocultures with hedgerows could help restore balance in honeybees’ diets, while providing nourishment to wild pollinators as well.”

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