What’s Happening to Honey Bees?

Since 2006, many large beekeeping operations are reporting that up to 40 or 50 percent of their swarms have disappeared. This massive die-off of honey bee populations is called colony collapse disorder.

Watch this video to learn more about the issue and what are some of the possible causes of the sudden decline in honey bee populations throughout the U.S.A. and Europe.

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Assuming you don't live under a rock you've probably heard about the sudden and mysterious drop in honeybee populations throughout the US and Europe. And maybe even if you do live under a rock, you've noticed that there are fewer bees buzzing around your rock. Beekeepers used to report average losses or dwindling in their worker bees of about five to ten percent a year, but starting around 2006. That rate jumped to about 30%, and now today the honey's really hit the fan with many big beekeeping operations reporting that up to 40 or 50 percent of their swarms have mysteriously disappeared. This massive and mysterious die-off of honeybee hives has been dubbed colony collapse disorder, and it is a big, big deal.

When you hear people freaking out about how important bees are you might think to yourself, “yeah you know, like I like honey too.” But I'm here to tell you honey is just the sticky frosting on the massive cake bees serve us every day for free. We don't just need bees; we really need bees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that honeybee population is responsible for more than 15 billion dollars in crops each year, and that at least a third of the food you're shoveling into your mouth as a direct or indirect result of the pollinating that they do. Bees pollinate over 90 flowering crops in the US including apples, citrus fruits, asparagus, and soybeans. And no crop needs bees more than almonds, which are pretty much totally dependent on them. When it's pollinating time in California farmers truck in 1.4 million bee colonies; 60 percent of professional bees in the country - almond groves and yes, I said professional bees. There are bees who earn money for people by doing what bees do, so you can imagine the economics that are at stake here.

The way colony collapse disorder goes down is reminiscent of a horror movie. A beekeeper toddles out to a colony and finds only a few if any adult bees in the hive but there are no dead bee bodies; just a lonely live queen and her baby brood. Everyone else has vanished. Sometimes there's still honey, and often the place is lousy with Varroa mites; vampirish parasites that transmit viruses. You can see how the mites might be prime suspects here, but they're probably only one factor in a combination of stressors including habitat loss and synthetic chemicals that are joining forces to kill bees. These days, of course, commercial crops are soaked in all manner of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Analysts have documented 150 different chemical residues in beehives, and while on an individual level these substances may be certified a non-lethal there have been few studies on how they may react with each other and what consequences that might have. Many critics believe nicotine-derived pesticides, neonicotinoids, may be partially to blame. These neonics are systemic pesticides, meaning they're often embedded into the seeds of a plant rather than sprayed on externally. Older pesticides killed bees too, of course, but they washed away or degraded quickly, whereas these neonics can persist for months and some beekeepers worry the build-up is contaminating, weakening, and ultimately poisoning the worker bees that collect all the pollen.

A study recently published in the journal Science found that bees given small doses of neonics were two to three times more likely to die while away from the hive than control bees, probably because the chemical messed with their homing abilities and they couldn't find their way home. Most of the research to date on neonics indicate they are safe enough but the sharp increase in their use since 2005 correlates with rising CCD rates, so some critics are demanding more research. In fact, a coalition of beekeepers and consumer and environmental groups is currently suing the EPA saying they jumped the gun on approving these products. And the European Union just voted to temporarily ban the insecticide until more research can be done. Some farmers and chemical reps are mad about the ban because they feel at least for now the science is on their side. The very fact that the issue has become so political is a good indication of how terrified folks are of losing all the bees because really we are seriously screwed without them. So if you're out picnicking this summer and you see of bee taking liberties with your slice of watermelon for Pete's sakes don't swat the poor girl she's earned her taste so be nice. We need all the bees we can get.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and for all of our bee viewers out there I'll communicate in your language.