Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Colony Collapse Disorder (Canary in the Coal Mine)

     Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomenon in which an entire colony of bees abruptly disappears from its hive. The term was first applied in 2006 following a drastic rise in the disappearance of honeybee colonies in North America and Europe.  Cases of CCD or Fall Dwindle Disease as it was initially labeled have since been reported globally.  In the years since although annual bee colony losses remain high symptoms of CCD represent only a small portion of the losses.  While researchers have not identified a single cause of CCD or other colony losses they believe there is a combination of factors:  blood feeding parasites (Varroa mites); agrochemical exposure (lowered immune system); migratory beekeeping stress; bee viruses;  and decreased plant diversity primarily due to the predominant system of monoculture food production and overuse of herbicides causing poor nutrition for honeybees.  In this presentation Colony Collapse Disorder, Reed Johnson, a PHD student in entomology at the University of Illinois describes the growing problem of CCD and challenges that face researchers in finding a solution. 

     The food staples of corn, wheat and rice are wind pollinated but a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, mostly by honey bees.  These foods provide 35% of our calories, most of our minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.  It has been said that Albert Einstein claimed that "if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live".  In fact there is no proof he said this but Albert was given to bold claims, often wrong but in this case there is a foreboding element of truth.  Winter death of bee colonies has risen in the U.S. from a norm of 10% to 30% and in Canada from 15% to 35%.  A similar trend is being realized globally.  Bee colonies worldwide were shrinking even before CCD because cheap imported honey from Asia flooded the world market.  China is by far the largest producer of honey in the world (approximately 300,000 metric tons per year).   The Chinese agriculture industry uses pesticides and herbicides banned in most developed countries. The deleterious effects of these chemical additives on humans and bees has been well documented. In one example excessive use of pesticides in pear orchards wiped out entire bee populations in parts of Sichuan Province where they now must pollinate by hand. 

Farm workers in Sichuan, China pollinating pear and apple trees by hand
Chinese beekeepers are known to use antibiotics (to treat bee diseases) banned in most developed countries because of health concerns. One of these anti-biotics is chloramphenicol which is the drug of choice in third world countries because it is cheap and easy to manufacture. Chloramphenicol is known to cause aplastic anmenia, bone marrow suppression and childhood leukimia. These antibiotics used by the Chinese beekeepers seep into the honey and contaminate it. Heavy metals, probably from lead containers used to store the honey have been found in tested Chinese honey.  To mask the acrid smell and taste of this contaminated honey they mix in sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup or malt sweeteners.  In 2001 the U.S. Commerce Department imposed a $1.20/lb anti-dumping tariff on imported Chinese honey because American beekeepers were being forced out of business by cheap, heavily subsidized Chinese honey. The Chinese honey was selling for 25 cents/lb while North American beekeepers needed $1.50/lb to break even. To counteract this Chinese honey producers began using ultra-filtering methods to conceal the origin of their honey. Prior to this ultra-filtering was not used by the world's honey manufacturers. Ultra-filtering is a high tech process where the honey is heated, sometimes dilluted and forced at high pressure through micro filters to remove microscopic particles including pollen which is the only way of identifying the origin of the honey (Chinese Laundered Honey).
     The arrival of CCD coincided with the major use of a new family of pesticides called neonicotinoids.  Many feel they are the major factor contributing to worldwide bee colony losses.  While testing for pesticides in bees is difficult as it is quickly metabolized and degrades (Difficulty analyzing bees) studies show that even low levels of pesticides reduce the resistance of bees to fungal pathogens (Agrochemicals and Bees).   Bees have a third the number of genes involved in their immune system as compared to other insects like fruit flies.  Bees are covered in hair, foraging great distances relative to their size and lifespan returning regularly to a home made of a sticky receptor of propolis and wax bringing with them elements of their environment.  These elements accumulate in the hive making them a prime indicator species for the state of planet earth.  Miners use to take canaries down to the mines to indicate the presence of the odorless, lethal gas carbon monoxide.  We would be wise to look upon bees in much the same manner.

     Whatever the final solution it is clear that the practice of large scale, chemically dependent monoculture agriculture is not sustainable and is realizing dire consequences.  The situation is similar to that of the tobacco companies denial of the negative effects of smoking in the 60's and 70's.  While it is difficult to test the exact effects of exposure to a multitude of environmental toxins  we have the evidence of years of testing available to us (Agrochemicals and Bees).  The agrochemical companies like the Tobacco companies of the past deny scientific study results and divert the blame to the Varroa mite (Follow the Honey - 7 ways pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis).   A few agrochemical corporations now control over 50% of the world seed market with expensive, patented, non saveable genetically modified seeds containing systemic pesticides and featuring herbicide immunity (Roundup ready).  This has doubled the use of the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup) in many areas creating bloomless landscapes and dire consequences to the environment (Roundup toxicity in Mammals).  
     After the devastating food crisis of 2008 during which starvation escalated the United Nations produced a report compiled by experts in an effort to prevent a repeat of this tragedy (Wake Up Before It's Too Late).  Their findings revealed that with a world population of 7 billion (1 billion suffers from starvation and 1 billion from chronic malnutrition) we produce enough food to feed between 12-14 billion people.  The argument given by the agrochemical companies and those that support them that we need this system of large scale, chemically dependent, genetically modified agriculture to feed the world is invalid.  The report suggests that we shift our focus to small scale sustainable agriculture to aid those most in need.  The U.S.D.A recently reported that after 15 years of large scale use there is no crop yield benefit from genetically modified seeds which was the primary selling point of G.M. seed producers.
     While the answer to the problem of CCD or other causes of bee losses is not simple there are a few clear solutions (Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders).  We must stop the mass worldwide transport of bees along with their diseases and pests (Varroa, Small hive beetle, Nosema ...).  It is essential that we develop local, survivor bee stock and create an environment in which they can thrive.  This means a reduction in human created environmental toxins and creating a sustainable, more organic system of food production and reducing habitat deterioration.  We are presently experiencing the Earth's 6th major extinction of biological diversity (losing between 1-10% per decade) due to pollution, over harvesting, invasive species, diseases, global warming and habitat loss.   Pollination by bees of many species is essential for their existence.  The genetic diversity of honey bees has been reduced by large scale bee breeding.  Genetic diversity and local adaptation is essential for the future survival of honey bees.  Organic farming produces between 10-20% less than agrochemically dependent farming but most experts believe that this gap can be reduced by funding organic farming research.  Millions of dollars are spent each year by institutions to improve large scale, monoculture farming compared to a fraction of that spent on organic farming improvement.  Also, profits are 20-30% higher for organic farmers and the demand for organically produced foods in North America is increasing by 15% a year.  Most importantly as suggested by the United Nations in their report "Wake Up Before It's Too Late" organic farming is sustainable.  
     The 2008 film "Silence of the Bees" is the first in-depth look at the search to uncover Colony Collapse Disorder and what is killing the honey bee. The filmmakers take viewers around the world to the sites of fallen hives, to high-tech labs, where scientists race to uncover clues, and even deep inside honeybee colonies.  In the years since the making of this film we have discovered that CCD is just one of many disorders effecting the health of the honey bee.  



  1. There is a growing body of research showing that CCD is caused by cell mast towers emitting microwaves to transmit data. The frequency of that transmission is very similar to that of the Sun by which the bees navigate. So they get lost and simply disappear. The microwave is also proven to be genotoxic, meaning it damages DNA, weakens the immune system and is listed as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. If microwaves can cause cancer in the human and lab mice, surely continual exposure where hives are relatively close to cells masts will cause bees to suffer ill-health also, and make them easy targets for mites. Add pesticides to the equation and you have a terrible combination of damage effects on bees. The rise of CCD has occurred at a similar time to the rise of the massive increase in cell phone transmitters globally. This is the one dramatic change in the environment the world has seen over the last 10-15 years.

  2. Electro Magnetic Radiation is a pollutant that negatively effects bees (impaired navigation, reduced egg laying...) and is just one more environmental toxin that is weakening their immune system. I agree with you that CCD is caused by a combination of factors: environmental toxins (including EMR and pesticides); large scale, monoculture, industrial farming (annual mass transit of thousands of hives = stress); pests (including the introduced varroa); diseases; and oversized bees (beekeepers enlarged honey bees over 100 years ago to produce more honey). The Bees are truly the "Canary in the Coal Mine" telling us there is something wrong with the world we live in.


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