If you don’t follow the news as it relates to science, you might not be aware of a genuine threat to our food supply that was identified six years ago: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Many beekeepers have experienced the disappointment of checking their hives to find one of them mostly empty. While this is to be expected, most beekeepers report it happening rarely – on the order of one hive in five each year. Starting in the winter of 2006, however, some beekeepers started reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. This unusual increase in beehive loss has continued, and the problem is called CCD.
Why should we worry about CCD? Doesn’t it just mean there may be a shortage of honey one day? Absolutely not. Bees are critically important in the reproduction of many flowering plants. They collect pollen from flowers and take it back to their hive, as shown in the picture above. The big yellow “globs” on their legs are pollen sacs that are full of pollen. However, while they are collecting pollen, they can’t help but transfer some of it from one flower to another. That transferred pollen fertilizes the egg cell that is held in the female part of the flower, producing a new plant that gets packaged into a seed. The seed is further packaged in a fruit, which provides food for animals and people.
So without bees, animals and people would have a much harder time finding food. Now as far as we know, wild bees are not affected by CCD. As a result, it is doubtful that CCD will destroy the food supply in nature. However, hives that are maintained by beekeepers are responsible for fertilizing all sorts of commercial crops. As a result, if beekeepers continue to lose hives, there will eventually be a shortage of bees available for crops, which will result in higher food prices. These higher prices will not be limited to fruits, because some fruit products (such as almond hulls) are used for feeding livestock. In the end, many foods will become more expensive if CCD continues at its current rates.
Scientists have been looking for the cause of CCD for quite some time, and many avenues have been investigated. However, there haven’t been any studies that have proved particularly promising…until now.
In the March 30th issue of the journal Science, two studies looked at the effect of a particular type of insecticide (called a “neonicotinoid” insecticide) on both honeybees and bumble bees. The honeybee study showed that when honeybees were fed nonlethal doses of the insecticide, many could not find their way back to the hive.1 This is characteristic of CCD, since it is assumed that hives are collapsing due to the fact that the worker bees don’t come back from harvesting pollen. The bumblebee study showed that when bumblebees were fed nonlethal doses of the insecticide, their colonies shrunk and had a much harder time producing queens.2 Once again, this is characteristic of CCD.
A third study seems to really provide the “smoking gun” for the fact that neonicotinoid insecticides are to blame for CCD. In this study, the scientists watched 20 hives that were kept in four clusters of five, and the clusters were far from one another to ensure that bees from different clusters did not regularly encounter one another. In each cluster, four hives were fed nonlethal amounts of a neonicotinoid insecticide that was very similar to the one used in the two studies I mentioned above. The fifth hive of each cluster was given no insecticide. The plants around each cluster were insecticide-free, so the researchers are fairly confident that the bees in the fifth hive of each cluster were not exposed.
In less than a year, three of the four insecticide-free hives were still healthy, and the one that was dead had signs of being infected by dysentery. However, 15 of the 16 exposed hives were dead, and their characteristics were indicative of CCD.3 So in the end, it really does look like the neonicotinoid insecticides are to blame. Obviously, these results need to be confirmed, but if they stand, it looks like we now know the cause of CCD.
As a Christian, it is important to me that everyone has access to affordable food, and it is important to take care of the amazing Creation that God has given us. As a result, I think it is important that scientists in the field quickly attempt to confirm these studies and, if they are confirmed, governments should act quickly to ban the use of this kind of insecticide.
1. Mickaël Henry, et. al., “A Common Pesticide Decreases Foraging Success and Survival in Honey Bees,” Science 336:348-350, 2012.
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2. Penelope R. Whitehorn, et. al., “Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production,” Science 336:351-352, 2012.
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3. Chensheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, and Richard A. Callahan, “In situ replication of honey bee colony collapse disorder,” Bulletin of Insectology 65(1)99-106, 2012.
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