In last month's Health Risks
column (Townsend Letter, May
2008), I discussed the unusual, mysterious, and threatening disappearance
of honeybees. Colony losses reaching 30% have been considered normal.
The usual causes of honeybee deaths include varroa mites, hive beetles,
and American foulbrood (a bacterial disease rapidly becoming resistant
to antibiotic treatment). Wax moths usually appear in weak or sick
colonies, but do not directly contribute to bee deaths.1,2
In 2006, bee deaths began escalating, with some commercial beekeepers
in this country reporting colony losses between 50% and 100%. Reports
of the unusual die-offs have been coming in from other areas around
the world, as well. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the term given
to the new malady.3
are major contributors to our food supply, pollinating more than
90 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which account for
approximately one-third of the food we consume. Their economic contribution
is estimated to be $15 billion annually. Honeybees are grossly overworked
and exceedingly underappreciated.
Honeybees are also sensitive little creatures, requiring a variety
of plants for their own nutrition. Modern agriculture cultivates
thousands of acres of a single crop, forcing honeybees to fly well
beyond their two-mile comfort zone in pursuit of dietary variety.
Many weeds, such as dandelions, lamb's quarters, wild mustards,
and others, are rich sources of nutrition for honeybees (and humans
too), but are purposely destroyed by toxic chemicals that are harmful
to honeybees (and, of course, humans, too).
Large-scale commercial agriculture also requires large-scale pollination,
at precisely the right time for each crop. Commercial beekeepers
manage ever-increasing numbers of bee colonies, trucking them around
the country in 18-wheelers, wherever and whenever a crop needs pollinating.
Altering their natural lifestyle by confinement, over-crowding,
lack of nourishing forage, inferior food substitutes, and other
stressors are taking a severe toll on honeybees.
Hives suffering from CCD appear to have a pattern of very unusual
- A seemingly healthy colony with many individuals rapidly deteriorates
to a colony with few or no surviving bees.
- Queens are found with a few young bees, lots of brood (developing
offspring), and adequate food reserves.
- No dead bees are found anywhere near the colony. They simply
- The remaining bees are infected with a high number of known
- More puzzling is the lack of evidence of infestation by varroa
and tracheal mites, two parasites that have been a serious problem
to commercial beekeepers over the past 20 years, weakening the
bees, spreading viral diseases, and causing major colony losses.
- There is an unusual delay of bees from other colonies robbing
the collapsed colony and of pest invasion by wax worm moths or
small hive beetles. Penn State entomologist Diana Cox-Foster suspects
the presence of a deterrent chemical or toxin in the hive may
be responsible for the delayed invasions.3
All the beekeepers initially interviewed
about their colony losses were migratory beekeepers, and all had
moved their colonies at least twice in the 2006 season, with some
colonies being moved as many as five times in the season. Colonies
constantly on the move can be stressed by confinement, temperature
fluctuations, and possible reduction or cessation of egg laying.
Moving may further hasten the disease load from increased defecation
in the colony and forced mingling of young and older (possibly infected
bees, who would otherwise be out foraging). Constant moving might
also expose colonies to new diseases or pathogens.4
Other variable stressors that occurred at least two months prior
to the first die-offs reported by interviewed beekeepers included
apiary overcrowding, pollination of crops with little nutritional
value, dramatic shortage of pollen and nectar, and drought conditions
limiting bee access to clean water.4 Stress compromises the immune
system of bees, making them more susceptible to infection by opportunistic
microbes, not unlike the HIV/AIDS response in humans.
Pesticide contamination by a new class of neo-nicotinoids (imidacloprid)
and other recently introduced chemicals (clothianiden and thiamethoxam)
are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be
highly toxic to honeybees. One lab study found the synergistic effect
of the neo-nicotinoids in combination with certain fungicides increased
their toxicity over 1,000-fold. Both the neo-nicotinoids and fungicides
are widely used agricultural products.4
Corn, sunflowers, and rape pollen grown from treated seed was found
to have systemic levels of imidacloprid high enough to endanger
honeybees. Imidacloprid impairs the memory and brain metabolism
of bees, especially the area of the brain that is used for making
new memories, which may impede foraging bees' ability to orient
themselves and find their way back to the hives. Responding to an
outcry from the nation's beekeepers, France decided to ban one of
Corn is a major feed stock for meat animals in the US. High fructose
corn syrup is in nearly every processed food and beverage consumed
by American children. Canola oil (rapeseed) is another major ingredient
in our food supply. If this new class of pesticides is affecting
the brains and memories of bees, what potential harm could it have
on the brains of our young children? I doubt that anyone is looking
The United States Department of Agriculture's Research Service (ARS),
in conjunction with researchers at Penn State's Department of Agricultural
Sciences and the University of Illinois, has developed a four-part
plan in response to CCD that includes the following:
1. surveying and data collection
2. analyzing samples of pests, pathogens, and pesticides, or other
3. experimenting with and analyzing potential causes of CCD
4. developing new methods to improve bee health and reduce susceptibility
to CCD 6,7
Many scientists believe genetically modified
crops and electromagnetic radiation from tower transmitters and
cell phones may be additional stressors to honeybees, but these
factors will not get serious consideration from the government-funded
Corn and canola were among the first major agricultural crops to
be genetically engineered with their own built-in pesticide and
have spread widely since 1966. Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
crops may be adding to the accelerated demise of honeybees. The
genetically modified seeds have a transplanted segment of DNA to
produce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in each plant cell. Bt is
a naturally occurring pesticide used by organic farmers and others
to control crop damage from butterflies and is even used by some
beekeepers to reduce damage from wax moths.1
Canadian farmers have begun to notice a lack of wax moths around
their hives even though Bt was not being used. However, they believed
Bt was brought into the hives from bees foraging among transgenic
crops. Corn does not require bee pollination, however, bees forage
heavily on corn flowers to obtain pollen for the rearing of young
broods. GMO crops have increased exponentially with tens of millions
of acres of transgenic crops, allowing Bt genes to move off crop
Pennsylvania beekeeper and biologist John McDonald is one of several
scientists who believe GMO crops pose a serious threat to honeybees.
One trial of GMO crops in the Netherlands quickly led to bee deaths
within 100 kilometers of the planted fields. In 1997, Thailand planted
a trial of Bt cotton and found that 30% of the bees in the vicinity
of the trial died.1,8,9
Robert Jay Rowen, MD, editor of the health newsletter Second
Opinion, first began to notice the fruit trees in his California
backyard failed to produce fruit even though they had been covered
with blossoms. He also noticed a lack of honeybees. Further investigation
led him to discover that among the four counties around him, Mendocino
County, which had passed its own GMO ban in 2004, suffered the least
bee die-offs of all.9
GMO crops were developed in the 1970s by Monsanto when technology
made it possible for genes of one species to be forced into the
DNA of an unrelated species. Pesticide genes were spliced into corn,
rapeseed (canola), and cotton. Soy was genetically modified not
to wither and die under heavier dousing with the herbicide Round-Up®,
which is also made by Monsanto. The transient genes produce proteins
that give the recipient plant traits the developer deems desirable,
plus additional proteins that have never before been part of the
food supply, and side-effects yet to be determined.10
In a precedent-setting move, which experts believe was illegal,
Monsanto managed to circumvent all regulatory safeguards and extensive
testing including long-term animal feeding studies, as well as a
requirement to have the new ingredient identified on food labels.
In 1992, Monsanto persuaded Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials
(against the better judgment of FDA scientists) to allow genetically
modified (GM) foods to pass as "generally recognized as safe"
(GRAS), a status that allows products to enter the commercial market
without any additional testing if there has been sufficient peer-reviewed
published studies, plus scientific consensus that the product is
safe. GM foods had neither, says Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds
of Change and the newly released, Genetic
Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered
From that time forward, the FDA has not required any safety evaluations
or product labels to inform consumers, nor required further notice
prior to new GM food products coming on the market. Henry Miller,
MD, had a leading role in the biotechnology issues at the FDA during
the years 1974 through 1994, and he witnessed the generous policy
of the White House, which gave the biotech industry the privilege
of self-policing. "In this area," declared Dr. Miller,
"the US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness
has asked them to do, and told them to do."10
Thanks to a lack of cooperation from the biotech industry, there
is only a handful of studies looking into the safety of GM foods.
Nonetheless, these studies verify concerns expressed by FDA scientists
and other pro-health advocates, including the following:
- Genes inserted into plant DNA may produce proteins that are
- The inserted gene has been found to transfer into human gut
bacteria, possibly ending up in human cellular DNA, where it might
produce its protein over time.
- Toxic substances in GM animal feed could potentially bioaccumulate
in milk and meat products.
- Farmer and medical reports link GM feed to thousands of sick,
sterile, and dead animals.10
The American public has been kept in
the dark about what has been going on behind closed doors regarding
the biotech industry and GMOs in our food supply. France, on the
other hand, has announced a ban on planting genetically engineered
crops until the safety of the crops can be fully assessed. French
President Nicholas Sarkozy based this decision on the desire to
follow the "precautionary principle" of "first, do
no harm." Vive la France!
Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) generated by mobile phones and transmission
towers has long been suspected of interfering with the navigational
ability of honeybees. Could this be another factor in the mysterious
CCD, since bees are not returning to their hives and are simply
vanishing with no tell-tale signs? Since 2006, half the American
states as well as officials from a number of other countries have
been reporting cases of CCD. Apiarists from Germany, Poland, Switzerland,
Spain, Italy, Greece, Scotland, Wales, England, and New Zealand
have all reported cases of CCD.11
Early research from Germany has shown that proximity to power lines
can affect bees' behavior. Some British experts suspect the high
use of mobile phones and mast towers is placing an additional burden
on bees, adding to recent cases of CCD in the UK.11
Though small in scope, a 2005 study at Landau University in Zurich
wanted to look at the effects of high-frequency, non-ionizing radiation
on the learning process of vertebrates and chose honeybees because
their brain structure concerning associative learning is comparable
to those of vertebrates. Because of their size, honeybees could
be reasonably stimulated by the frequency of DECT (cordless phone
base stations which differ from cellular phones).11-13 The study
placed handsets near hives and observed that Global System for Mobile
communications (GSM: originally from Groupe Spécial Mobile)
phone radiation in the frequency range 900 MHz-1800 MHz caused bees
to avoid the hive. Dr. Jochen Kuhn, one of the study's designers,
speculated the "waggle" dance, performed by bees on the
honeycomb to communicate with others, might be influenced by the
radiation. While not all scientists agree on the importance of the
dance as a primary means of communication between bees, past studies
have shown that it can definitely affect bee movement patterns.
Kuhn suggested the 200-300 cycles/second oscillations that dancing
bees produce through honeycomb may be interrupted by resonance effects
caused by the phone handsets.13
The 2005 study found a significant difference between irradiated
and non-irradiated: 39.7% of the non-irradiated bees vs. only 7.3%
of the irradiated bees returned to the hive. A follow-up test in
2006 using 16 colonies resulted in a smaller variation, though still
considered significant by the scientists.12 Far from definitive
on the topic of how electromagnetic radiation can interfere with
bees' behavior, the complete lack of studies in this regard makes
the Landau study all the more interesting. Like the bio-tech industry,
the telecommunications industry is powerful and far-reaching and
chooses not to invest in or encourage the kind of health research
that would benefit humans and wildlife.
Bee Doctor Speaks
It is always so wonderful to discover great wisdom in your own hometown.
This was the case recently when I phoned a local beekeeper to get
his take on the CCD problem. I didn't realize he had given up his
official day job to be a fulltime apiarist and consultant to a four-state
area, helping other beekeepers maintain healthy colonies. Chris
Harp, of New Paltz, New York, began working with bees 18 years ago
and became so involved with studying the Rudolf Steiner philosophy
of how bees exist in accordance with nature that he now teaches
this approach in his own beginning and advanced classes.
Harp believes the techniques used by commercial pollinators play
the most significant roll in the decline of honeybees. These techniques
include managing huge numbers of colonies, using synthetic chemicals
for pest management, trucking bees all over the country to work
thousands of acres of monoculture crops, and feeding the bees GMO
corn syrup. "When combined with unusual weather conditions
of drought and climate change, these factors all play an equal part."
Harp is emphatic when he says, "These factors equal the two
main issues in the current Colony Collapse Disorder – stress
and malnutrition – that impact the honeybees' immune systems."
The honeybees in Chris Harp's care are lucky little critters. Instead
of routine applications of pesticides and antibiotics, his bees
are carefully monitored to first determine the severity of a pest
invasion. They are provided with a special health tea brewed with
dandelion roots, chamomile, thyme, and other herbs, which is homeopathically
added to a cane sugar solution with a dash of sea salt (rich in
minerals). If varroa mites seem to be a problem, thyme is a wonderful
herb, because it is a powerful antiviral with antibacterial and
Dealing with aberrant weather conditions poses a more serious problem.
Unseasonably warm weather during winter months makes the bees active.
Since it is still winter, there is no pollen to gather for food.
An increased activity level raises the temperature in the hives,
increasing the moisture content, then a new freeze comes along,
taking a further toll on the honeybees.
To improve the health of honeybee colonies and prevent a total collapse
of the honeybee industry, it may be necessary to scale down and
work more closely with nature. Smaller farms, greater variety of
crops, fewer toxic chemicals, and smaller local colonies of bees
may be the answer. The many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
farms popping up across the country will surely be part of the solution.
This solution runs counter to commercial agricultural where bigger
is better, but if all the bees die, the agriculture industry will
suffer greatly, as will the rest of us.
In next month's column, this discussion will conclude with a look
at what we can do now to help the honeybees survive.
Rose Marie Williams, MA
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, New York 12561
Hutaff M. Give bees a chance. The Simon,
May 1, 2007. Available at: http://www.thesimon.com.
Accessed March 10, 2008.
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Available at: http://www.entomology.cornell.edu/IthacaCampus/Articles/BeeColonyCollapse.html.
Accessed February 4, 2008.
July 2008: Use http://www.entomology.cornell.edu/public/IthacaCampus/Articles.html
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Accessed January 28, 2008.
vanEngelsdorp D, et al. Fall dwindle disease: Preliminary report.
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Linked to CCD Working Group Report. Accessed February 4, 2008.
Frisch T. Our honeybees are dying: Nobody knows why. The
Valley Table. Aug/Sept 2007.
St. Clair Rice G. The puzzling plight of the honeybees. Hudson
Valley Green Times. 2007;27 (3).
Kaplan K. USDA announces colony collapse disorder research action
plan. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2007/070713.htm.
Accessed March 15, 2008.
McDonald J. Could genetically modified crops be killing bees? San
Francisco Chronicler, March 10, 2007. Available at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/03/10/HOG5FOH9VQ1.DTL.
Accessed March 16, 2008.
Rowen RJ. A mysterious killer of honeybees threatens our food supply.
Second Opinion. May 2007; XVII (5).
Smith J. FDA sanctioned genetically engineered foods circle the
globe. Well Being Journal. Mar/Apr
Lean G. Are mobile phones wiping out our bees? The
Independent. April 15, 2007. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/are-mobile-phones-wiping-out-our-bees-444768.html.
Accessed February 12, 2008.
Kimmel S, et al. Electromagnetic radiation: Influences on honeybees
(Apis mellifera). Available at: http://agbi.uni-landau.de/material_download/preprint_IAAS_2007.pdf.
Accessed March 10, 2008.
Melville B. Bees "killed by mobile phone signals." Telegraph.
April 16, 2007. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/04/16/nbees16.xml.
Chris Harp and Grai Rice run HoneybeeLives: A
Naturalist's Approach to Beekeeping. For more information,
or call 845-255-6113.