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Where Did All the Bees Go & What Does it Mean for Us?
The Mysterious Mass Disappearance of America's Bees

Honeybees are disappearing at alarming rates across the country, leaving beekeepers and researchers alike wondering what has caused the mysterious loss of bees.

honeybees disappearing

Some U.S. beekeepers say they've lost up to 90 percent of their bee colonies because of the tentatively named colony collapse disorder.

Dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), it describes a recent (starting largely late last fall) phenomenon in which bees are flying off from their hives and not returning, often leaving behind large quantities of honey and the queen bee (which the colony cannot survive without). Most of the bees fly off and die, while the few that are left are usually heavily diseased, suggesting a problem with their immune systems.

"We are extremely alarmed," said Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Penn State University and a leading member of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.

"It is one of the most alarming insect diseases ever to hit the U.S., and it has the potential to devastate the U.S. beekeeping industry. In some ways it may be to the insect world what foot-and-mouth disease was to livestock in England," she said.

In all, at least 24 states have reported bees disappearing, and beekeepers say that over one-quarter of the 2.4 billion U.S. bee colonies have been affected, according to ABC News. Some beekeepers report having lost up to 90 percent of their bees.

Strange Occurrences in Bee Colonies

Part of what makes CCD so mysterious is that it involves a number of behaviors not normally seen with bee colonies, including:

  • Normally, when bees die their bodies will be found near the hive, or will be carried out by worker bees. With CCD, no bodies are found, which means the bees are leaving the colony to die elsewhere.

  • Weakened bee colonies are typically immediately overrun by other bees or pests, looking to take the honey. With CCD, no other bees or pests will touch the hive, even when honey is present, for two weeks or more.

  • The hives appear normal on the outside. It's only when beekeepers look inside that they find most all of the mature bees have left (leaving the younger bees to develop on their own).

Much More Than a Shortage of Honey

Every year, honeybees pollinate over $14 billion worth of fruit, vegetable and nut crops in the United States, according to a Cornell University study. If bees continue to disappear at the rate they have been, there will not only be a threat to honey stores but also to a large number of food crops produced in the United States.

honeybees disappearing

About 75 percent of flowering plants (including most food crops) depend on being pollinated for fertilization.

Growers rent millions of bee colonies every year and depend on them to pollinate their crops, such as Florida oranges or California almonds. In fact, about 75 percent of all flowering plants (such as most food crops) depend on being pollinated for fertilization, according to a report by the National Research Council. It remains to be seen to what extent the bee shortage will impact U.S. crops this year.

Why are the Bees Disappearing?

Right now, nobody knows exactly why bees are leaving their hives and dying, but there are a number of theories floating around, including:

  • Bee Stress Levels: Tens of billions of bees are transported across the country, in the backs of trucks, to pollinate crops every year. Researchers have suggested that this process is putting a high, abnormal level of stress on the bees.

  • What the Bees are Fed: Some beekeepers feed their bees high-fructose corn syrup or sugar, which some say may be harming the bees' health.

  • Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: GM crops, in particular Bt corn, have been suspected of causing CCD, according to the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.

  • Radiation from cell phones: A German study found that radiation from cell phone towers may be disorienting bees and causing them to die.

    "When bees are exposed to signals from cell phones, they can't find their way," said Dr. George L. Carlo, chairman of the Safewireless Initiative, in an ABC News article. "It gets no nutrition and it consequently dies."

  • Pesticides: Researchers are investigating a group of pesticides that have been banned in some areas in Europe, which could potentially be interfering with bees' ability to find their way back to their hives.

  • Others: The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group is also looking into a variety of other possible causing, such as chemical residue/contamination in the wax, food stores and bees, pathogens or parasites in the bees, lack of genetic diversity and lineage of bees, queen source (many farmers purchase queen bees from varying locations), and antibiotic use.

Until researchers are able to determine the reason so many bees are disappearing from America, the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group is asking all beekeepers to fill out the online survey at to help them gather as much information as possible about this potentially devastating issue.

Recommended Reading

The Worldwide Threat to Coral Reefs and Why It Should Matter to Everyone

Why Banned Toxic Substances Diazinon & Dursban are Still In Use Today: An Interview with Environment

Sources April 16, 2007

The Independent March 1, 2007

The New York Times February 27, 2007 February 11, 2007

Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium

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