Friday, May 6, 2011

New Jersey's Buzz on Colony Collapse Disorder


By Courtney Leiva

Beekeepers throughout the Garden State know there is something wrong. Some blame mites and pesticides but others are still puzzled as to what exactly is causing colony collapse disorder.

“I had beehives that were full of bees and produced a great honey crop, and two weeks later were empty,” says Joe Triemel, Corresponding Secretary at the Essex Co. Beekeepers.

Why all the buzz? Bees are very critical to agricultural practices.

According to the State of New Jersey Department of Agriculture, without a healthy honey bee population, successful fruit and vegetable production would greatly be at risk. There are over 10,000 bee colonies in the state which are valued at $250 per colony. These colonies are responsible for the production of nearly $200 million worth of fruits and vegetables annually.

What is colony collapse disorder?

Within the past few years, a mysterious virus called colony collapse disorder (CCD) has plagued colonies throughout the country. Researchers like Kevin Hackett and Dr. Nancy Ostiguy at Penn State University have been studying the potential causes of the disorder for quite some time now but have not been able to pinpoint a single cause.

“While scientists still don't have a smoking gun that points to the cause of CCD, we have learned some things. Research to date indicates that CCD is most likely to be a syndrome caused by a series of factors that work individually or in combination. But we really don’t even know if every case of CCD is caused by the same set of factors or, if it is the same set of factors, whether they always occur in the same order,” Kevin Hackett, Co-Chair of the Federal CCD Steering Committee said in an email.

New Jersey’s growing problem

New Jersey bee keepers have felt the effects of bee losses first hand.

From fall 2009 to winter 2010, the New Jersey Bee Keeper’s Association surveyed the losses of bees throughout the Garden State. According to the survey, approximately 35 per cent of bees were lost in this time span. Some of the deaths were linked to CCD.

“I personally lost all 8 colonies this past winter. Our losses in New Jersey are about 35 percent in 2010,” Barbara Hill, Secretary of the Northwest New Jersey Beekeepers Association, said in a email.

Potential causes of colony collapse disorder have ranged from pesticides, mites, climate change, and even international trade.

“There is a growing body of evidence that pesticides that are used in industrial agriculture and in suburban yards and parks will harm honey bees. In the 1970s, we began to eliminate many pesticides that caused honey bee colonies to die. These banned pesticides would immediately kill a colony that was exposed,” Dr. Nancy Ostiguy said in an interview.

“Today's pesticides do not kill bees quickly. Imidacloprid for example, interferes with a bee’s ability to learn. If a bee cannot learn from her sisters where the flowers are or if she is a scout bee and cannot learn to be able to tell her sisters where the flowers are that she found, then the colony will dwindle and die. Researchers have also found that some of these pesticides are made more toxic to honey bees when there are other pesticides present. So a chemical that we thought wasn't a problem for bees could be,” Ostiguy adds.

However, for Janet Katz, mites seem to be the issue plaguing her hives.

“I have been keeping bees in N.J. for about 20 years. I currently keep about 60 colonies in Morris, Somerset and Hunterdon Counties. I have not seen the affects of what has been termed 'CCD' in my hives. I have, however, had to deal with the introduction of tracheal mites, which our bees appear to have acclimated to, and the effects of pesticides and Varroa mites, which our bees have not become acclimated to,” Katz said in a email.

“Losses of colonies due to parasitizing by Varroa mites and/or starvation can run as high as 35 per cent or more” Janet Katz adds.

Mites are among the most suspected culprits causing CCD.

“When there are many mites in a colony and the virus levels are high, the colony will die in 1-2 months. This is the most frequent reason we see colonies die in the summer time and one of the most common reasons why colonies die in the wintertime,” Dr. Ostiguy says.

For beekeeper Joe Treimel, there is no other explanation but the disorder for all the losses.

“There is no explaining it, but for CCD. While it is being researched at the university level where departments of entomology exist, researchers have yet to come up with definitive answers. Researchers are currently narrowing it down to a virus found in nearly all of the collapsed colonies and certain pesticides produced by Beyer, which have been banned by the European Union. These pesticides can actually enter the plants through their roots and then exude their poison in nectar and pollen, which the bees collect and bring back to the hives,” Treimel says.

Winter death loss

But State Apiarist Tim Schuler attributes these startling losses to winter death loss.

“CCD is described as occurring during the brood rearing season. All of the sudden most of the adults have disappeared leaving only a hand full of nurse bees and queen in the hive alive. The brood nest becomes neglected, and pests such as wax moths and small hive beetles do not clean up the comb quickly,” Schuler says.

“I have not seen these symptoms in New Jersey. The biggest problem we have in N.J. is winter death loss. Winter death loss is not CCD. Most winter death loss in N.J. is attributed in my experience to beekeepers either not treating their bees for Varroa mites at the right time of year or not treating at all. Some winter death loss is attributed to starvation, and colonies having queen failures in the previous fall,” Schuler adds in an email.

Winter death loss has been a long standing issue for beekeepers, but now researchers have seen deaths continue into warmer months as well.

“We are losing over one third of our colonies every winter. Some beekeepers lose more and some beekeepers lose less. It doesn't seem to matter if the beekeeper is very experienced or very new at beekeeping. In additional to the winter losses of bees, we are losing a larger number of colonies during the portion of the year that is warmer. Researchers are still trying to figure out why but we have some ideas,” Ostiguy says.

Effects of Global Climate Change

Dr. Ostiguy’s research finds that global climate change has also taken a toll on bee populations.

“We know that spring is coming earlier and earlier but food availability may not be as reliable earlier in the year. If bees 'break cluster' too early they could freeze to death or consume too much of their stored food before they are able to collect more. Bees huddle together in the winter time for warmth. This is called clustering. When bees are clustered they vibrate their muscles shiver generate heat. When the weather warms up, they stop clustering,” Ostiguy finds.

“We have been having more frequent droughts too. The availability of pollen and nectar is reduced during droughts. Bees also need water; they use it to cool the hive and in the same way humans do in metabolism. During a drought it becomes hard to find necessary water,” Ostiguy adds.

Effects of International Trade

Even international trade has been labeled a threat to the bees, as imported honey bees from Australia have spread viruses to bee colonies to the United States.

“Believe it or not, international trade agreements are a problem. International trade agreements state that bees can be imported as long as the source country does not have any diseases or parasites that are not present in the importing country. When Australia began importing bees into the United States there were no known diseases or pests that present in Australian bees that we did not already have in the United States. Unfortunately, there was a disease (Israeli acute paralysis virus) that was present in Australian bee that we did not have in the United States,” Ostiguy says.

“The problem was that no one had discovered this virus before the imports began. Additionally, once we knew about the virus no one looked to see if it was present or absent in Australian or American bees. This is not necessarily anyone's fault because there is only so much money available for research and there were other problems that were more pressing at that time. This brings up an important point that we underfund research. It wasn't until a year ago that any money was provided to survey American honey bees to see what diseases and parasites are present in this country. Even though the survey has begun, it is badly underfunded,” Ostiguy adds.

The good news

However, the good news is that progress is being made to help alleviate this issue. Dr. Ostiguy states that bee losses due to colony collapse disorder have decreased.

“The current incidence rate of CCD is less than 0.5 per cent. While this is good news that CCD did not kill the colonies studied,” Ostiguy adds.

New research is also being conducted to further understand and reduce the problem.

“It is quite likely that we will be able to reduce the severity of diseases if we can reduce the mite levels in a colony. I and several other researchers are looking at this relationship. A number of researchers are looking at the impact of single pesticides and pesticides in combination on bee health. As we learn information researchers are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to revise the rules on pesticides to protect honey bees,” Ostiguy says.

You can help

Although honey bees still are very sick, Dr. Ostiguy feels that the public can still do their part to help out.

“The public can help in a number of ways. It’s important to purchase locally grown food, and support planned growth so we don't encroach on agricultural land near cities. Make sure you support regulations on the use of pesticides in parks, yards, and other pollinator friendly plants in your yard instead of pesticides,” she says.

About the Author

Courtney Leiva is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She is graduating in the fall of 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts with a concentration in Journalism. Courtney is a freelancer with both Mahwah and Hopatcong

After graduation, Courtney hopes to combine her love of fashion and the environment and write for an eco-fashion publication.

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