For the last few years we’ve heard nothing but bad news about the fate of the honey bee. Scientists have been at a loss to find a reason for what has become to be known as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) or “honey bee depopulation syndrome” (HBPS), a mysterious situation where the hives appear to be abandoned by all adult bees (except the queen) with no signs of dead bees in or around the colony.
Why do we care about the honey bee population? The simple answer is because without them we humans will cease to exist. Bees are the key to our food chain. A third of our consumed food is due to bee pollination; vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds crops can only flourish and propagate from bee pollination. Bees travel a range of 15 to 30 minutes away from their hives and land on 50 to 100 flowers on each trip; two million flower visits go into making up only one pound of honey. $15 million dollars in US agriculture is because of the honey bees’ contribution. The honey bee is essential to our ecosystem.
The latest estimates is that a third of the hives in the US have collapsed, spanning across 35 states and several countries around the world. Some theories posed to explain CCD are viruses, poor nutrition, extreme stress, parasites — even pointing to ever growing magnetic fields (cell phones, electric consumer devices, etc.) throwing off the bees’ navigational systems. None have proven to be the answer.
One of the more revealing studies shows that it might be due to not one virus, but several viruses that inhibit the bees’ ability to produce a necessary protein for their immune systems to function properly. The study conducted at the University of Illinois revealed that the bees’ cells were “cluttered with ribosomal RNA fragments, suggesting that the bees had trouble translating genetic material into functional proteins.” (The Scientist 8/09) This could be the result of the bees’ inability to cope successfully with multiple infections at the same time. “You can recover from a gunshot wound unless someone is kicking you in the head at the same time,” entomologist May Berenbaum, the study’s main author, said.
While the research has yet to yield a single identifiable issue, there is at least one definable marker the bees appear to share. Berenbaum said, “We may not have the smoking gun, [but] we found the bullet hole.”
Hopefully, scientists will find the underlying cause and solution before time runs out for the honey bees . . . and us.