Are the bees vanishing?

avo_apiaryThere is some evidence that viruses are involved in colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees disappear. This condition is receiving a great deal of attention ranging from basic scientific research (summarized on TWiV 46) to a PBS episode to a documentary entitled Colony which says that “The unexplainable phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder has left landscapes of empty beehives all across America, threatening not only the beekeeping industry but our food supply.”¬†From my view as a virologist, there is no compelling evidence for a single viral etiology in colony collapse disorder. I asked Tom, a honeybee breeder in California, whether he thinks that there is a pandemic that will wipe out the world’s honeybees. Here is his answer:

“I can only give you my opinion about what is happening with the bees today. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation, much of which has been caused by all the media attention over the last several years. As I’m sure you know, the press always seems to get things wrong, and emphasizes the doom and gloom “crisis” aspects.

“The fact is that there are many more problems that the bees have to contend with. Globalization has brought a steady stream of pests and diseases which have accumulated and there are no prospects of them going away. Over the past 40 years that I have been keeping bees, I’ve had to deal with this list of new problems:

  • Varroa mites – which vector virus
  • Tracheal mites – which clog the breathing tubes
  • Several virus’ – probably more than we know about
  • Nosema ceranae, a microsporidian – lives in the gut and cuts lifespan
  • African bees – which caused me to depend on artificial insemination
  • Small hive beetle – which eats bee eggs and ferments honey
  • Increased pesticide use, and new compounds – especially neoniconitoids which are replacing banned organophosphates, but badly affects bees nervous systems.

“It has become more difficult and expensive to keep bees today. In the old days the bee population was hard to keep down, but now it is difficult to maintain the population in an apiary. Consequently, many beekeepers have given up, hence the number of managed hives has decreased from around 5 million in 1950 to just over 2 million today. The number of beekeepers has decreased. Also the number of feral colonies has gone down since to the introduction of the varroa and trachael mites in the 1990’s.

“However, I don’t believe that honeybees are in any danger of going extinct. The problems are as much to do with economics as with biology. A crisis was declared a couple years ago when the supply of bees was not able to meet the pollination needs of the increasing acreage in almonds orchards in Calif. Pollination fees soared, market forces kicked in, and today there is a glut of bees available for almond pollination.

“The bee industry has benefited from all the attention. Money has become available for research, and the public has a new found appreciation for the value of bees. Frankly, the decline of the bee industry has been slowly happening for decades, the attention today is just catching up with the problem, but is a bit overblown.

“Thank you for asking my opinion. We do have real problems, but rest assured we are not all going to die, as reported in one British tabloid.”

I know Tom because he is a fan of the podcast This Week in Virology:

“I am a honeybee breeder in California, and I listen to Twiv while I’m artificially inseminating queen bees. My work is primarily breeding bees that are resistant to the Varroa mite which as well as sucking the haemolymph (blood) of the bees, also is a vector for virus. One of the virus involved in the demise of bees is Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) which was discovered by your colleague Ian Lipkin. So I discovered Twiv in an effort to learn more about virus. Just about evertyhing I know about virus comes from listening to your show. With an eighty hour work week during bee season, I really appreciate being able to get good educational information while my hands are otherwise engaged.”

I thank Tom for his thoughtful reply and his interest in learning more about viruses. If you want to learn more about beekeeping, visit his website or blog.