Colony Collapse Disorder

by Jay W. Sharp

Study of the CCD has “involved an unusual partnership between entomologists and scientists working at the leading edge of human genetic research,” said Andrew C. Revkin, writing for The New York Times, September 6, 2007.  “It employed the same technology being used to decode Neanderthal DNA and the personal genome of James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA.”  Scientists still suspect that other factors, for instance, drought-induced poor nutrition, cross-country transportation stresses, and environmental degradation, may play roles in the collapse of honeybee colonies.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

“An unknown enemy is destroying honeybee colonies across the nation, and researchers are scrambling to discover what is causing it....”
Mississippi Agricultural News

The honeybee plays a vital role in enriching the foods of our dining table, improving the bottom line of our nation’s agricultural industry and sustaining the health of our environment, but, alarmingly, it now faces an unprecedented decline, a phenomenon first identified by scientists late in 2006.  “An unknown enemy is destroying honeybee colonies across the nation, and researchers are scrambling to discover what is causing it and how it can be prevented,” said the Mississippi Agricultural News.  Indeed, just as demand for pollination services is soaring for numerous crops, the honeybee population has declined across four continents, according to Berenbaum.  Called “colony collapse disorder,” or “CCD,” the honeybee’s plight – if it continues – could hamstring the beekeeping industry within a matter of years.  It could severely reduce pollination and production of fruits, vegetables and nuts—all nutritionally crucial to our diets.  Similarly, it would reduce the pollination and production of livestock feed and forage, with adverse effects on the beef and dairy industries. 

The honeybee’s decline could mean, said Berenbaum, higher prices for agricultural products, reduced exports of domestic commodities, increased imports of foreign commodities, and expanded imports of foreign honeybees.  That means, of course, a hit in the American pocketbook, exacerbation of our already horrendous trade deficit, and the risk of new inadvertently imported honeybee pests.  At worst, the honeybee’s falling numbers could place at risk the safety and security of much of our nation’s food supply. 

“While no cause or trigger for the disorder [CCD] has been identified,” said the Mississippi Agricultural News, “researchers have several suspects,” including, for example, agricultural insecticides, bee mite control chemicals and microbial diseases.  Additionally, the honeybee may have suffered stress from reduced pollen production during recent droughts.  “The scientists haven’t yet decided what is causing the problem,” Harry Fulton, a state entomologist, told the Mississippi Agricultural News, “but it may be a deadly combination of stress on the bees and one of these other factors that normally is not pathogenic.” 

The plight of the honeybee raises formidable challenges for American science. 

Honey Bee on Pink flower


The Search for Solutions to CCD

Specialists from federal and state departments of agriculture have marshaled forces to address the problem of CCD.  “They’re finding a lot of pathogens in the adult bees,” entomologist Clarence Collison told the Mississippi Agricultural News.  “Most of these pathogens are related to stress diseases.  We firmly believe the bees are under some type of stress, and a scientist at Penn State has been able to show that these bees have suppressed immune systems.”  Although biological scientists have begun to understand the plight of the honeybee, they still lack the resources and information they need to produce a solution to the problem. 

Berenbaum and other researchers, from the U. S., Canada and Mexico, have recommended, for example:

  • reallocating federal and state budgets to support new innovative approaches to protecting the health and genetic stock of honeybees;

  • establishing a permanent surveillance program for monitoring the parasites and diseases of the honeybee;

  • utilizing the recently completed definition of the honeybee’s genetic makeup to diagnose and solve the insect’s problems;

  • investigating the potential for increased reliance on native pollinators, for instance, the bumble and mason bees (“Collectively,” said Berenbaum, “native bees are more versatile than the honeybee”); 

  • monitoring and assessing the abundance and effectiveness of native pollinators; establishing programs to identify potential new pollinators; and improving pollinator habitat in agricultural acreage removed from cultivation.


Unfortunately, to date, as Berenbaum notes, “Investment in honeybee research has hardly been commensurate with the economic importance of this species.  Certain elements of contemporary apiculture [beekeeping] have remained essentially unchanged for the past century”

Hopefully, that is about to change, perhaps with the growing realization that wisdom, as said in Proverbs, is the honey of the soul.  “It is imperative that we move swiftly to get to the bottom of this,” said Subcommittee Chairman Cardoza, “before the problem becomes even more serious.”



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