New Clues in Colony Collapse Disorder

June 12th, 2013
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Colony Collapse Disorder has been reported on here before.   It’s a recent and disturbing trend that has been seen in numerous places around the world in which honey bee populations abruptly plummet as hive colonies “collapse” and die out.  The implications are worrisome, since bees are important pollinators for food crops.

There have been numerous causes proposed for colony collapse.  Many are fringe or just ridiculous.  The chemtrail/haarp/depleted uranium/fluoride conspiracy theorists seem to love using colony collapse as a way of proving that the government must be spraying something horrible in the skies or transmitting evil energy waves.  Another popular hypothesis is that colony collapse is caused by electromagnetic pollution from cell phones, wifi and other devices.   Of course, there is no evidence at all that this is true, and, in fact incidence of colony collapse seem to have no coloration at all to the prevalence of RF transmitters.   Still others have blamed the use of genetically modified organisms, although, again, the patterns of collapse do not relate to where genetically engineered crops have been used.

More mainstream hypothesis are that it is related to parasites, such as viruses or fungi.  Pesticide use has also been suggested as a contributor, this remains controversial, and, as one might imagine, many will jump on any information about pesticides and make outlandish claims.   It’s possible that insecticides do play some roll in stressing colonies, but they are clearly not the primary factor, though possibly a contributing one.

Despite the consensus that parasites play a major roll in colonies collapse, this does not explain why it has been increasing around the world in recent years.

However, a new hypothesis may explain what is causing the increase in CCD

Via Ars Technica:

Feeding bees corn syrup may leave them vulnerable to colony collapse
Apis mellifera, the western honeybee, is big business; the pollination services the bees provide to US agriculture are valued at roughly $14 billion. Unfortunately, bees the world over are suffering from colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which worker bees go out foraging and then disappear instead of returning to the hive and tending to the queen like they are supposed to. The causes of CCD are not clear, but pathogens, parasites, and pesticides have all been implicated. Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that have been shown to alter bees’ navigation, foraging, communication, and reproduction, have just been banned in Europe in an attempt to help the bees.

New research suggests yet another potential contributor to CCD. The problem? We’ve been stealing the bees’ honey and instead feeding them high fructose corn syrup. The problem isn’t so much the fructose as the absence of chemicals in the honey.

Commercial beekeepers feed bees high fructose corn syrup instead of honey for the same reason that commercial food manufacturers feed it to us: it’s cheaper. But it’s only one of the problems the bees face. In the 1980s the varroa mite, Varroa destructor, started attacking bees in the US, so pesticides were introduced into beehives to kill the mites.

When I first saw the headline for these stories, I was skeptical. After all, HFCS has been blamed for everything from cancer to obesity, despite the science indicating its no more harmful than any other form of sugar. However, in this case, the problem really has nothing to do with High Fructose Corn Syrup, but rather is related to the practice of using a honey substitute to feed bees.

High Fructose corn syrup is the most common feed used for bees in the US, since it is cheap and available. Elsewhere, glucose syrup or other sugar syrups are used. The bees produce honey, which is used to feed larva and as a source of stored food for the colony. In nature, this is what the bees would live on. However, since one of the major reasons for keeping bees is to harvest the honey, bee keepers have routinely been removing honey and replacing it with other sugar syrups, allowing more of the valuable honey to be collected.

While the substitute sugar syrups are not themselves harmful, it’s long been established that honey has antimicrobial properties and contains traces of environmental chemicals from the area it is collected. Both of these features can be important, protecting the larva from microbial pathogens and helping build the immune systems of bees. In some ways, this is analogous to the proven benefits of breast milk.

While this hypothesis still remains unproven, it is very much worth considering.  Despite the claims that it’s HFCS that is causing the problem, it’s really the absence of honey that is at issue, which is a much more reasonable explanation.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 12th, 2013 at 4:57 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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8 Responses to “New Clues in Colony Collapse Disorder”

  1. 1
    drjim Says:

    Fascinating. It appears they take ALL the honey, and leave the bees with a poor substitute.


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  2. 2
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    “Fascinating. It appears they take ALL the honey, and leave the bees with a poor substitute.”

    Well, yes, that’s what harvesting involves in agriculture. The bees are not pets, they’re an agricultural resource.

    Saying that during the summer the bees feed themselves on honey, the harvest is usually done at the end of the summer when they’ve stored up a large reserve of honey for the winter. That reserve is replaced by sugar feeders in the hive to keep the remnant population of workers, queen(s) and drones alive until the spring when they can feed outside again and the hive population booms.

    Apiarists use the cheapest form of sugar they can buy for this purpose, obviously. I’ve heard of some hives being fed confectionary sugar and producing vanilla-flavoured honey at the beginning of the year.

    I’m suspicious of this HFCS thing as I’ve been of the cellphone tower interference theory, GM crops etc. etc. that have been put forward as a reason for the noticeable problems in bee populations. Bees are prone to a number of diseases, many of them easily passed on from hive to hive by viruses, bacteria and parasites. It’s possible that CCD is one or a combination of these, evolving and spreading like, say, Dutch Elm disease or other narrowly-specific ailments. Bee breeding over the centuries has produced a somewhat standard bee used in most commercial apiary work, a good producer of honey with a wide pollenating range, resistance to climate etc. but this monoculture is prone to being badly affected by a disease which would otherwise not hit other breeds so hard.


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  3. 3
    Jeff Walther Says:

    It would be interesting to do experiments in which hives 1) keep all their honey, 2) are fed all corn syrup, 3) are fed a mixture of 25% corn syrup and 75% honey, 4) are fed a mixture of 50% corn syrup and 50% honey, 5) are fed a mixture of 75% corn syrup and 25% honey.

    If there is some virtue in the honey ingredients, the lack of which is weakening the bees, perhaps profits can be maintained near their current levels by feeding them a mixture which preserves enough of the benefits, while yielding a large proportion of the reduction in costs.

    For example, if there is little difference in the health of hives which get 100% honey and those which get 25% honey and 75% corn syrup, then one might fine tune it and see where the best ratio rests. Is it at 10% honey? 5% honey?

    Experiments. The path to answers.


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  4. 4
    Paul Studier Says:

    Bees have been fed for decades. I remember in the 60′s, people used sucrose from cane or beets. Some used pollen substitutes. Even though bees have had die-offs for many years and many reasons, Colony collapse is new.


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  5. 5
    Calli Arcale Says:

    Bees have indeed been fed for decades, but it’s possible there is a combinatory effect with something else. If the inferior feed leaves them more vulnerable to disease, then it would be easier for varroa mites to wreck havoc on the colony. Pesticides to treat the mites could, if unwisely applied (and history shows no good reason to assume farmers will apply it wisely instead of treating it as a cure-all), cause the mites to evolve resistance, making it progressively more difficult to control them. This could explain the delay between the introduction of widespread bee feeding and negative consequences.

    So it’s plausible, but on the other hand, there’s one big nagging factor against it: CCD isn’t just affecting captive bees. It’s affecting feral honeybees too, and feral honeybees are definitely not being fed, nor are they being treated with pesticides, so whether they’re being attacked by reistant varroa mites or not will make no difference. (Resistant strains of pathogens are usually not any more virulent. They’re just harder to treat.)


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  6. 6
    Xavi F Dejuan Says:

    No s’hauria de subestimar l’efecte que tenen les ones electromagnètiques de tots els mitjans de comunicació que avui en dia la humanitat està emprant (telefonia mòbil, wifi…). Les abelles s’orienten per posicionament respecte al sol i es comuniquen mitjançant una dansa específica i per altres mitjans que avui en dia sembla que no es coneix prou. Aquesta causa podria ser per sota el nivell de l’iceberg del CCD.

    One should not underestimate the effect that electromagnetic waves have all the media that today humanity is using (mobile, wifi …). Bees are oriented with respect to the sun position and communicate using a specific dance and other media that today seems not enough is known. This could be due to the iceberg below the CCD.


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  7. 7
    Larissa K Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI3gsb_d27I

    Save the bee!!


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  8. 8
    James Greenidge Says:

    Be interesting to know whether genetic engineering can program another specie of bees or even flies to take over the pollinator role, sort of like emergency backups in the event of a bee plague (until micro-bot bees can do the job).

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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