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A case study about colony collapse disorder

Two thousand years ago, at the height of the Roman Empire, the poet Virgil wrote lovingly about the practice of beekeeping, of cultivating the “aerial honey and ambrosial dews” he called “gifts of heaven” ( Georgics IV: 1-2 ). Bees represent a gift to humanity even greater that Virgil knew. In addition to satisfying the human appetite for honey, the Italian honeybee, Apis melliflora , is the world’s most active pollinator, responsible for over 80 of the world’s most common nongrain crops, including apples, berries, almonds, macadamias, pumpkins, melons, canola, avocadoes, and also coffee beans, broccoli and lettuce. Even the production chain of the enormous meat and cotton industries relies at crucial points on the ministrations of the humble honeybee. We depend on pollinated fruits, nuts and seeds for a third of our caloric intake, and for vital vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in our diet. In total, around 80% of the foods we eat are to some degree the products of bee pollination, representing one third of total agricultural output.

Given the $1 trillion value of pollinated produce, any threat to the health of honey bees represents a serious threat to the human food chain—a classic sustainability issue. With the industrialization of the global agricultural system over the last 50 years—including crop monoculture and mass fertilization—bees have indeed faced a series of threats to their ancient role, the most recent of which, so-called Colony Collapse Disorder, is the most serious yet.

Busy Bee Hive
Busy Bee Hive A forager honeybee comes in for landing at a healthy hive, her legs dusted with pollen. Colony Collapse Disorder has devastated tens of thousands of such hives. Source: Ken Thomas

In his poetic primer on beekeeping, Virgil includes a moving description of a bee colony suffering mysterious decline:

Observe the symptoms when they fall away
And languish with insensible decay.
They change their hue; with haggard eyes they stare . . .
The sick, for air, before the portal gasp,
Their feeble legs within each other clasp,
Or idle in their empty hives remain,
Benumbed with cold, and listless of their gain. (368-78)

Beekeepers worldwide faced an even worse predicament in late 2006: the mysterious disappearance of entire hives of bees. Over the winter, honeybees enter a form of survival hibernation. Their populations suffer inevitable losses, but these are replenished by the Queen’s renewed laying of eggs once winter thaws. In the spring of 2007, however, hundreds of thousands of colonies in the United States did not survive the winter. A full 30% of all honeybee colonies died. Each spring since has witnessed even worse declines. Similar losses afflicted Europe and Asia. Worldwide, millions of colonies and billions of bees have perished since 2006 on account of the new bee plague.

Because the global commercial value of bee pollination is so enormous, well-funded research into colony collapse began immediately. A number of theories, some credible, some not, were quickly advanced. Several studies pointed to new or enhanced viral strains, while others suggested the toxic effect of industrial fertilization. Still others claimed that mobile phone towers were interfering with the bees’ navigations systems. Because the honeybee is a charismatic creature and features so prominently in our cultural lore—we admire their industriousness, fear their stings, call our loved ones “honey,” and talk much of Queen Bees—the story of colony collapse was quickly taken up by the media. A flurry of news stories announced CCD as an epic “disaster” and profound “mystery,” which was true in simple terms, but which cast bee decline as a new and sudden calamity for which some single culprit must be responsible.

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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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