2006, beekeepers began reporting massive die-offs and, more strangely,
the complete disappearance of entire colonies of honeybees. Over
the past 20 years, there have been serious bee losses due to mites,
viruses, bacterial infections, and extreme weather conditions, but
never on a scale experienced these past two years. Some beekeepers
lost 50% of their bees, others 80%. A few beekeepers were devastated
with 100% losses! Bee losses were not limited to this country, but
were reported in other countries, as well.
Ordinarily, beekeeping is not front-page news. However, The
New York Times, USA Today,
the Los Angeles Times,
the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, along with CNN,
FOX News, National Public Radio, and the BBC, picked up a report
released by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences in late
January 2007 to alert beekeepers and growers about the current crisis.
Such wide media coverage has helped raise public awareness about
the disappearance of bees.1 Just as all this was happening, the
animated BEE Movie began circulating throughout neighborhood theaters,
raising awareness among the younger set on how important bees are
to our society.
Most of us go about our business never giving a thought to bees,
even though we are deeply indebted to the busy little pollinators
for our very existence. Honeybees do a lot more than make honey
and pollinate the flowers that beautify our gardens. They pollinate
90 different food crops (one-third of the food supply) and contribute
approximately $15 billion annually to the national economy. Their
importance to the food chain, human health, and wildlife survival
Bees play a major role in the world's food supply, pollinating
most fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Some of the crops dependent on
bee pollination include carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, tomatoes,
zucchini, pumpkins, squash, apples, pears, avocados, watermelons,
cantaloupe, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, citrus,
and seed and nut crops. And to the chocolate lovers who are reading,
guess who pollinates those cacao plants? Honeybees, of course. Peanuts,
a legume, do not rely on bee pollination.3,4
Bee pollination is so crucial to the almond crop in California that
it requires more than half of the 2.4 million commercial colonies
in the Unites States. Severe bee decline of the past two decades
has forced almond growers to import bees from Australia. What would
happen to these crops if the Australian colonies begin to decline?3,5
Even meat eaters are indebted to bees for pollinating soy, a major
food crop for meat animals. Cotton does not require bee pollination,
but the yields are higher when bees visit the cotton fields. Cotton
oil is an ingredient in many packaged and prepared snack foods,
otherwise considered junk foods. Despite cotton oil being a major
additive in food products, cotton is not classified as a food crop
and receives many applications of very toxic pesticides that would
not be permitted on food crops. Read labels carefully if you wish
to avoid cotton oil. Bees visiting cotton fields are exposed to
Honeybees are not native to America. They were brought here by the
colonists. Beekeeping and honey collection were a pastime prior
to the establishment of sugar as a major world commodity. In the
1940s, there were approximately five million managed bee colonies
in North America. Now there are just over two million.4,6
Through the ages, "bees were admired for their hard work and
personal conduct, often referenced in sermons, literature, and daily
discussions of the New England colonies," writes Tammy Horn
in her book, Bees in America. She
describes how bees were kept in mud tubes in ancient Egypt, appear
in literature from Greco-Roman times through Colonial America, and
how since the 1970s, bees have suffered from chemical pesticides.6
Beekeepers have endured numerous setbacks over the past two decades
as bees succumbed to a variety of problems. Aside from winter losses,
the usual causes of death include varroa mites, hive beetles, wax
moths, and American foulbrood (a bacterial disease rapidly becoming
resistant to antibiotic treatment).2,7
During the winters of 1995/1996 and 2000/2001, mite-related colony
deaths reached catastrophic proportions. In the northern states,
colony losses averaged between 50% and 100% for many beekeepers.
State and federal efforts have not succeeded in controlling the
mite problem or the bee losses. On the contrary, just as other insects
become resistant to pesticides, mites are developing resistance
to toxic miticides, which are themselves harmful to bees, further
weakening their immune systems and making it difficult to know which
is the greater evil – mites or miticides – or if it
is a combination of the two.7
John McDonald, a biologist and beekeeper from Pennsylvania, prefers
to use formic acid pads, which kill the mites. Mites have shown
no sign of developing resistance to formic acid since it was originally
introduced 30 years ago. Besides being inexpensive and simple, proper
application of the pads eliminates queen losses, drone infertility,
and brood and hive mortality. Formic acid is the only treatment
allowed in organic beekeeping.
Honeybees require a mix of pollens from a variety of plants for
their nutrients. Hurricanes, drought, and excessive rain take a
toll on forage plants that produce pollen the bees rely on for their
own nourishment. Loss of habitat to housing developments and shopping
malls and loss of variety to factory-farming monoculture further
impedes their natural supply of wild forage. Colonies weakened by
stressors, such as sickness and malnutrition, are the hardest hit.
This brings to mind Pasteur's theory of disease being caused by
an outside agent or germ vs. the theory of his contemporary and
philosophical rival, Beauchamp, who believed the terrain (immune
system) was of greater importance than the pathogen in disease development.
Small farms once relied upon local bees for pollination. As present-day
commercial agriculture escalated, the demand for huge numbers of
pollinators also escalated. Fewer commercial beekeepers now manage
greater numbers of bee colonies and rent out their bees to commercial
growers, trucking the bees around the country like migrant laborers
to pollinate when and where they are needed. Such a lifestyle can
stress out the hard-working little pollinators beyond their ability
to fend off the usual culprits (mites, viruses, bacteria, climate
problems), while raising the chances of infestation or the spread
Africanized bees are compounding the problem as they begin to populate
areas in the southeast where commercial beekeepers often winter
their bees. The southeast has also been the major source of queen
bees and packaged bees supplied to northern beekeepers to replace
their winter losses, which have been increasing.7Africanized bees
are more competitive than the traditional European bees. It is feared
that if the aggressive traits transfer into the commercial bee population,
the colonies will become less manageable and could possibly raise
liability issues for beekeepers.8
The loss of bees affects beekeepers, the agricultural industry,
and, ultimately, the consumer. That pretty much includes the entire
population. This situation exemplifies the simple yet profound words
of Chief Seattle who said, "Man did not create the web of life,
but is merely one thread in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do
In 1923 Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Anthroposophic movement and
the Waldorf School, foresaw the current honeybee problem predicting
they would not survive the twentieth century if methods of beekeeping
did not change. Steiner's lectures on bees are compiled in a book
titled Bees (Anthroposophic Press).5
Florida, one of the nation's major beekeeping states, has begun
to experience the consequences of honeybee losses to varroa mites,
sometimes referred to as the vampires of honeybees. The mites travel
in swarms and suck the bee's blood, weakening bee colonies.9 During
a recent visit to south Florida, I encountered an organic grower
who operates a magnificent farmer's market right on Hollywood Beach.
He offers a huge selection of greens, fresh herbs, crucifers, and
root vegetables, all grown on his farms in central Florida. I asked
if he was experiencing any bee problems. He agreed there was definitely
a shortage of honeybees and said that since he started raising his
own bees, he's had no problems at all. He claimed his bees are happy
to stay close to the farm and not wander off.
His bees probably think they're in Paradise – no toxic pesticides
and a large variety of crops of many colors, textures, and flavors.
I then asked if he knew of any farmers in his area who were having
problems with bees. Among the organic growers with whom he is acquainted,
he could not recall any of them reporting bee problems. It was very
uplifting to hear his comments.
Coming in the next issue will be more details on the bee crisis:
what the experts are –and are not – looking at. A third
installment will review bee economics and what we can all do to
help save the overworked underappreciated honeybees, lest we follow
Rose Marie Williams, MA
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, NY 12561
1. Penn. State Staff. Bees in crisis.
Cooperative State Research Educ. & Ext. Services. Available
Accessed January 28, 2008.
2. Hutaff M. Give bees a chance. The Simon,
May 1, 2007. Available at: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5050.cfm.
Accessed February 4, 2008.
3. Colony collapse disorder, vanishing bee. Available at: http://honeybeequiet.com.
Accessed February 4, 2008.
4. Breakthrough on mystery of vanishing bees. Available at: http://www.climateark.org.
Accessed January 28, 2008.
5. Hauk G. The Spikenard Farm honeybee sanctuary. LILIPOH.
Spring 2007; 47 (12). Available at: www.Lilipoh.com.
6. Herlster K. Review of Bees in America: How the Honeybee Shaped
a Nation by Horn, T. LILIPOH. Spring
2007; 47 (12). Available at: www.Lilipoh.com.
7. Calderone N. Bee colony collapse disorder. Cornell Univ. Entomology.
Available at: http://www.entomology.cornell.edu/IthacaCampus/Articles/BeeColonyCollapse.html.
Accessed February 4, 2008. (May 2008: Link
bad. Try www.entomology.cornell.edu/public/IthacaCampus/Articles/HoneybeeCollapse.html
8. Revkin A. Bees dying: Is it a crisis or a phase? NY
Times. July 17, 2007; F3.
9. Ponn J. Mite threatening bee population here, nationwide. High
Springs Herald, December 13, 2007. Available at: http://www.highspringsherald.com/articles/2007/12/13.
Accessed January 28, 2008.
Risks & the Environment DVD (60 min.)
by Rose Marie Williams, President
Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc.
P.O. Box 533
New Paltz, New York 12561
$20 (free postage within USA)
Check or money order payable to Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc.
A candid discussion about environmental assaults vs. genes –
ways to reduce toxic exposures around the home – corporate
The CAC is a 501©(3) grassroots organization that strives to
raise awareness about health risks to pesticides and other pollutants,
encourage use of safer methods, and improve public health. DVD sales
help support this mission.