Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder in Rensselaer County


Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder in Rensselaer County

by John Leahy (Article appeared in the Eastwick Press in Eastern Rensselaer County, NY)

Silent Spring Part 2?

The comforting buzzing of bees as they shuttle tirelessly between pollen laden blossoms on a rustic spring day may be a familiar scene that we can no longer take for granted. A new calamity threatening the honey bee population has received much attention and impacts not only the owners of the stricken hives, but potentially the agricultural sector’s capability to grow food and even the variety and quality of food produce available to consumers everywhere. The affliction, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is typified by a sudden mysterious abandonment of the hive by worker bees and has been documented throughout this country and others as well. CCD does not appear to have impacted local beekeepers yet, but its cause is not yet known and it is being urgently investigated.

Honey bees have been under attack by pathogens and parasites (notably the varroa mite) and have undergone severe population contractions in the past, but CCD has unique symptoms that are perplexing the scientific community. In the fall of 2006, large scale migratory beekeepers began observing that hives were suddenly losing worker bees, as if they had flown out on their quest for pollen and never returned. Usually a bee kill off will leave dead bees in and around the hive, but in the current case, there are no signs of the dead bees. They seem to vanish. The navigational system of the bee is famous for enabling the bee to find its unerring way back to the hive. Researchers from universities and government agencies that have joined together as the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group are wondering if some unidentified factor is tampering with the bee’s ability to navigate. In addition, researchers have observed that there is an unusual avoidance of the abandoned hive by invading robbers like waxworm moths, hive beetles, and other bees, suggesting the presence of a lingering toxic substance. Whatever the cause, it does not appear to directly impact human health and safety. The working group studies have not found any evidence that hives stricken by CCD have tainted honey.

Diana Cox-Foster, Professor of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University, noted in her March 29th testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, that CCD was originally observed to be a problem primarily impacting commercial migratory beekeepers that transport their hives and follow the pollination seasons around the country. However, she believes that the evidence has clearly shown that CCD can seriously affect all beekeepers.

Members of the local beekeeping community are concerned, but have not observed manifestations of CCD in their hives yet. David Chinery, Extension Educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, says that the decline in honey bee populations has been an issue for years. The decline has been noted in wild honey bee populations as well as in hives tended by beekeepers and this decline will impact all gardens and wild flowering plants that depend on pollination. Chinery is a small backyard hobbyist with 20 hives. This year he experienced only normal winter mortality loss.

Dan Kerwood, President of the Southern Adirondacks Beekeepers Association (SABA), has 40 hives and has not observed any signs of greater than normal winter mortality. SABA has about 100 members, mostly small scale beekeepers with fewer than 100 hives, and CCD symptoms have not been reported as yet by members of the organization. Kerwood stated that he believes CCD is mostly impacting the commercial migratory beekeepers. However he admits that investigating scientists still do not know what is causing the epidemic. “One of the problems is that you can’t do an autopsy if there are no dead bodies.” he said, referring to the symptom of the worker bees disappearing from the hives. Kerwood, who also operates a bee removal business, adds that he has observed that the wild bee colonies that he has removed from buildings and hedges all seemed to be in vigorous health.

Shane Gebauer of the Betterbee supply company in Greenwich NY deals extensively with the beekeeping community in the region and he has not heard reports of CCD from his customers or experienced symptoms in his own 300 hives. He repeated what appears to be a generally held belief that Colony Collapse Disorder is primarily affecting large commercial beekeepers.

Gould’s Orchard, located at the southwest corner of Rensselaer County, rents 30 hives every spring to pollinate their apple trees. Ed Miller, one of the orchard’s owners, says that he has observed the honey bee population declining for years. In fact, he claims he has seen almost no wild honey bees for the last 15 or 20 years, a decline he believes is mostly due to mite infestation.

Ray Lemka, of Christie’s Barn Orchards in Castleton, has been handling bees all his life and he has not observed symptoms of CCD, but does state emphatically that the wild honey bee population has been wiped out by the varroa mite. According to Lemka, 50 years ago orchards could achieve a large part of their pollination from wild bees nesting in hollow trees. Today, both hollow trees and wild honey bee colonies are much less common.

John King is a local beekeeper in Stephentown with six hives. He stated that he has experienced only normal winter kill and has not seen any indications of disappearing worker bees. Ed Myer of Myer Apiaries has 500 hives in Granville NY and he also reports that he has not experienced any abandoned hives or suffered more than normal winter loss.

Peter Genier, a beekeeper with 2500 hives, lives along the New York and Vermont border and supplies bees for pollination, both locally and across the country. In December he ships 800 hives to California for the almond pollination and the bees are shipped back again in March. He reports that his hives seem healthy, even the ones that make the trip back and forth across the continent. Genier, a former bee inspector, suggests two theories about possible contributing factors. First of all, he states that commercial pollination is very stressful for the bee population because, in order to maximize efficiency in pollination, orchards frequently overstock the number of bees that are brought in for the task. The resulting high population density creates competition among the bees for the available nutrition. The reduced food intake leaves bees more vulnerable to maladies. A second suggestion hypothesizes that bees might come into contact with elevated levels of pesticides collecting in puddles. He states that the amounts of pesticides used may be at acceptable levels on the trees, but may concentrate as runoff water collects in puddles. The bees use water evaporation to cool the hive on hot days and they gather water from puddles to bring back to the hive. Exposure at the puddles may impact the bees with a hidden elevation in pesticide concentration.

The CCD working group is studying a variety of possible causes for CCD, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, varroa mites, pesticides, and new unknown pathogens. It is hypothesized that a combination of factors occurring together may be triggering to the malady. One theory from German investigators even suggests that cell phone radiation may be confusing the bees’ navigation capacity. However, working group studies indicate that this is not likely since there is not a strong correlation between cell phone towers distribution and CCD occurrence distribution. In fact, cell phone service is not even available at some locations where CCD has been found.

The varroa mite is one problem for honey bees, which may or may not be a contributing cause of CCD. Varroa mites are 8 legged arachnid parasites that suck the blood of honey bee adults and brood. Working group research has indicated that there is no correlation between the number of mites present in a hive and the manifestations of CCD in the hive. The probability of finding high levels of mite infestation is the same whether the hive exhibits CCD impact or not.

According to Cox-Foster’s testimony before the US House of Representatives, investigators have found high levels of pathogens in colonies experiencing CCD. A particularly interesting finding was the high correlation of the presence of fungi in CCD hives. Researchers hypothesize that the immune system of the bees is being suppressed by one or a combination of these factors.

The working group, as outlined by Professor Cox-Foster, will organize its continuing research along three main lines of inquiry. First, are new or reemerging pathogens causing CCD? Second, are chemicals in the environment causing suppression of the bee immunization system? Third, is a combination of stresses weakening the colony and making it vulnerable to a complete collapse caused by an exposure that would not otherwise be so catastrophic? The research will compare commonalities between factors found in healthy hives and those found in stricken hives to try to identify harmful as well as beneficial factors.

Information about bees may be obtained from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County at (518) 272-4210.

Further information and updates on the investigation of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group may be found on the Mid Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium web site.


Closer to home, the Southern Adirondacks Beekeepers Association (SABA) will hold a meeting on May 21 featuring a speaker on bee pollen at the Ballston Spa Cooperative Extension. Further details may be obtained by writing to Dan Kerwood at his email address.


Information can also be found on the organization’s web site.