A shocking sight awaited him when he lifted the first lid and saw the neat stack of wooden frames, thick with honeycomb but not a single bee.
In his 20 years of keeping bees, Engle had never experienced such a dramatic loss, yet in the months since he has lost four more hives with no explanation.
He’s not alone.
At the monthly meetings of the Central Oregon Beekeepers Association, he regularly hears similar stories from fellow beekeepers, some of whom have lost half their hives or more.
Their meeting topics have evolved from basic beekeeping strategies to serious science as they struggle to answer the question plaguing beekeepers, not just in Central Oregon, but across the country: What is happening to our bees?
There are several hypotheses out there, but it appears that, overall, a wave of bee killing phenomena has swept the country in recent years. The effect has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and scientists have assembled a lineup of suspects, including an explosion of parasitic mites, a mono-crop diet and a lack of genetic diversity. No matter what the cause, the decline of honeybees could have a devastating effect on the health of crops and the entire agricultural system.
MEET THE DOMESTICATED BEE
To those of us unschooled in the art of beekeeping, maintaining a thriving colony of Apis Mellifera, aka the common honeybee, may seem a simple undertaking. Let them forage for pollen all summer, collect the honey in the fall, and tuck them into the hives for a long winter’s nap.
In reality, successful beekeeping requires as much attention to detail and knowledge as raising other animals en masse. Like ranchers protecting their herds, beekeepers must balance the hives’ nutritional needs, prevent parasites, stave off disease and keep an eye on the health of the queen.
For hobbyist beekeepers like Engle, the Central Oregon climate presents extra duties. Without a natural year-round supply of wildflowers, the bees require a good amount of honey to sustain them through the winter. So beekeepers supplement the hives with extra honey, pollen patties and fresh water.
To survive an average winter, the hive needs about 100 pounds of honey—a volume Engle guesstimates by lifting one side of the hive, judging the weight and adding food as needed.
Even under the watchful eyes of their keepers, the honeybee population has plummeted over the past half-century. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that beekeepers managed over five million hives in 1947; by 2005, the number of hives had dropped by half due to a variety of factors, including fewer people keeping bees and a decline in the health of bee populations.
For Central Oregon farmers like Jim Fields, fewer bees could have a real impact on the produce he grows, he said.
Pollination problems are especially evident among the various squash and zucchini plants.
“If the blossoms don’t get pollinated, you’ll see a brown tip where the blossom was, and it’s not nearly as good,” he explained.
Fields and his wife, Debbie, lost a hive this year. To ensure his crops are properly pollinated, Fields relies on local beekeepers, including Allen Engle, who maintain hives on Fields’ farm.
This arrangement is a win-win relationship. Fields’ crops are abuzz with pollinators and the bees have access to a pollen bonanza.
While honeybees, like the ones at Fields Farm, have become almost completely domesticated. Several species of wild bees are still out there, and still serve as essential fruit and crop pollinators, but their population has fared even worse. New studies out of the University of Illinois estimate population drops of up to 96 percent.
One finding hits home: the Franklin bee, unique to Southern Oregon and Northern California, has not been spotted since 2006 and is suspected to have gone extinct.
Like their domesticated cousins, feral bee species face a daunting list of environmental changes that could threaten their survival: loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity in the wildflowers they forage and increased use of pesticides. Plus, there’s no stopping wild bees from mixing it up with domesticated bees, picking up debilitating mites and pathogens.
With no beekeepers to nurse them back to health, wild bees may leave the domestic honeybee as the sole pollinator of everything from almonds to zucchini, and this trend concerns both beekeepers and scientists.
POLLINATORS: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE HONEY
Stroll through any Central Oregon farmers market and you’ll quickly come to appreciate honeybees as the unsung heroes of the produce world. The juicy peaches from Hood River, the fat purple marionberries from the Valley, the leggy carrots from local farms—they all depend on pollination by honeybees (yes, even carrot flowers need to be pollinated in order to make seeds.) The shortage of bees in each of these locales has created a niche for migratory beekeepers, who truck their hives around the country, following the pollination schedule of major crops.
Migratory hives may solve the pollination problem, but they generate a whole new set of factors that may contribute to CCD. Devin Prescott, a commercial beekeeper in Redmond, has seen the problems firsthand as he hauls his 150 hives throughout the West Coast over the course of the growing season.
“My hives are in the California almond fields in February, in Corvallis by late March for the berries, and in Madras by July for the onion and carrot fields,” said Prescott.
In his four years of beekeeping, Prescott has become increasingly aware of the stress that the migratory lifestyle has on the bees.
“Managing hives that live on mono-crops, with only one type of pollen, is tricky. Like us, bees need a variety of amino acids to thrive,” he explained.
Like the proverbial chicken and the egg, mono-crops and migratory beehives create a self-perpetuating problem. Consider the almond fields of California’s Central Valley, where perfect rows of almond trees stretch for miles in every direction. Consumer demand for almonds pushes farmers to keep planting, and every single blossom will need to be pollinated by a honeybee. Yet once the blooms fade and the nuts begin to develop, how could native bees survive?
With nary another flowering species in sight, the mono-crop of almonds eliminates the possibility that bees could naturally live here year-round.
In response, migratory beekeepers from Oregon to Florida drive their hives to California and deposit an approximate 1.5 million hives (more than half of the country’s total number of managed hives) along the edges of the rows. As the bees get busy pollinating, they share whatever pathogens they brought from home.
“The bees drift more than you’d expect,” said Prescott. “So whatever problems the nearby hives have, you’re going to get too.”
Pollination of the California almond fields has become the most extreme example of our food supply’s dependency on migratory bees. Almond farmers expect to harvest more than two billion pounds of almonds this year—a bumper crop worth more than 3.6 billion dollars, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. A dwindling supply of honeybees thus creates a double threat, putting both the almond supply and the Central Valley economy at risk.
CCD: THE BEEKEEPER’S WORST NIGHTMARE
In some cases, there are no explanations for Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. That frustrates bee experts.
Dr. Ramesh Sagili, Professor of Entomology at Oregon State University, has been following CCD trends very closely since they were first identified in 2006.
“Colony loss is not unusual—anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the hives may not survive a winter, even for an experienced beekeeper,” said Sagili.
Most problems within the hive leave telltale signs and, like a good detective, the beekeeper can usually determine what happened to the bees.
For example, an encounter with a heavy dose of pesticides would leave dead bees in and around the hive, but plenty of food within. If the bees had run out of food, the beekeeper would find dead bees facing headfirst into the honeycomb, which would be empty of honey. A virus or mite infestation could result in a number of dead or deformed young bees and weakened adults. CCD differs from all of these: the adult bees simply vanish from the hive.
Since 2006, beekeepers across the country have been reporting this unusual type of hive loss in numbers far above average—some losing up to ninety percent of their hives. Often the queen and immature bees remain inside, along with a normal food supply, but most or all of the adult bees are missing.
Sagili, who has studied bees for much of his career, has joined the ranks of what he describes as “a small but diligent group of researchers working to narrow down the factors behind this huge threat to agriculture,” and they’re working through a plethora of possibilities.
Some researchers held out cell phone radiation as a cause—could it interfere with the bees’ navigational skills and confuse their inner compasses?
How about climate change? Are plants becoming early season bloomers, throwing off the pollination schedule?
Genetically modified crops have come under scrutiny as well, especially genetically modified corn that produces its own protective toxin.
Sagili has focused his attention on Varroa destructor, an aptly named parasitic mite that snuggles into the folds of the honeybee’s abdomen and feeds on its hemolymph—the honeybee’s equivalent of blood. Adding to its destructive abilities, the mite transmits several viruses, including those that cause deformed wings in young bees.
This red, eight-legged vampire of the insect world is native to Asia, where the bee species have greater natural defenses to the mite. The Varroa mite was first reported in the U.S. in 1987, less than a decade before CCD took hold, and has since reached epidemic proportions. Coincidence? Or does the combined pathogen load weaken the bees and disrupt their navigation, so they cannot return to the hive?
The Agricultural Research Service of the USDA reports that the honeycomb and remaining bees of colonies lost to CCD do indeed have high pathogen loads, but the Varroa mite was often found at normal levels, and no single pathogen was always present.
MULTI-FACETED PROBLEM: THERE IS NO SMOKING GUN.
Beekeepers, including Engle and Prescott, agree there is no smoking gun behind CCD.
No single factor—a pathogen, a missing nutrient, a fatal chemical—can be pointed to as the primary problem.
Instead, Sagili describes today’s world as “the perfect storm of conditions that have severely compromised the immune system of the whole honeybee population.”
The forces driving the storm include poorer nutrition, parasite and pathogen overload, and less genetic fortitude, as many domestic queens are purchased from the same stock.
Even as the future looks bleak, Sagili expresses cautious optimism.
“CCD numbers seem to have leveled off. At least it’s not getting worse. In the meantime, I think the science will show us how to relieve the stress factors,” he said.
Both Prescott and Engle both notice a change in beekeeper vigilance, and like many of their peers, they check their colonies more frequently and treat more often for mites. Varroa mites can often be controlled with simple, non-chemical techniques: dusting the bees with powdered sugar, trapping the mites on a sticky paper under the screened floor of the hive, or hanging a “hop guard” strap soaked with natural resins from hop plants. Stronger chemicals come into play as a last resort, but can render the honey inedible.
Engle worries as much about the beekeepers as the bees.
“In the long run, I know we’ll figure out how to fix this,” he said. “But in the short term, it’s disheartening to lose the hives, and it’s really expensive. For me, this is a hobby, but if this were my livelihood, who could afford to lose a third of their hives every year?”
Be Bee Friendly…
Five Ways to Support
1. Bee-scape your garden with nectar-laden flowering plants, to help diversify the bees’ diet. Find varieties that thrive in the High Desert in the OSU Extension Office publication, Xeriscaping in the High Desert.
2. Buy local honey, either directly from the keeper or through co-ops such as CentralOregonLocavore.com or AgriculturalConnections.com.
3. Let it bee…Minimize your use of pesticides that can harm bees. Instead, use traps instead to control wasps that become uninvited picnic guests.
4. If you find a swarm of bees, don’t panic! Contact a local expert through COBeekeeping.org to come collect the swarm and give them a good home.
5. Become an urban beekeeper. The Central Oregon Beekeepers Association offers Beekeeping 101 every spring, and will help you learn what equipment to gather in the meantime. Check your city’s website for local ordinances on the number of hives allowed.
By the numbers…
.08 – The teaspoons of honey one worker bee makes in her lifetime
1.3 – The average number of pounds of honey consumed per person, annually
45 – The average number of days in the life of a worker bee
200 – The beats per second of a honeybee’s wings
5,000 – The minimum square footage required to keep bees on a Bend city lot.
2,000,000 – The average number of flowers tapped by honeybees to make one pound of honey.
Photos taken by Suzanne Johnson.