Colony Collapse Disorder: Is a Pair of Pathogens to Blame for Honeybee Decline?

A bee researcher and professor at the University of Montana discusses his new research on the massive honeybee decline called colony collapse disorder.

| December 15, 2010

Honeybee on White Background

Honeybees play a key role in pollinating important crops. The mysteriously declining population may have dire agricultural consequences.


Colony collapse disorder (CCD) research continues to be a controversial subject. The New York Times published an article in October, which we reference in this article, with a title suggesting that the work of Jerry Bromenshenk and his team had uncovered the definitive cause of CCD: Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery. However, upon preparing this article for publication, we discovered an article calling into question Jerry Bromenshenk’s findings (see CNN Money’s What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths). While Bromenshenk’s research on honeybee decline is compelling, his findings have been a matter of debate among experts. To learn more about the many possible causes of CCD, view MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ page dedicated to honeybee decline. 

Honeybee decline has been a puzzling problem for farmers and entomologists alike since 2006, when honeybees began mysteriously dying in large numbers. Scientists have been scrambling to discover the cause of what has been termed colony collapse disorder (CCD) over the last few years, but no official cause has been determined.

Theorists have blamed everything from cell phones to Roundup for the declining honeybee population, and an intriguing study published in October suggests that the culprit could be a combination of a powerful virus and lethal fungus. We caught up with Jerry Bromenshenk, a professor at the University of Montana and lead researcher on the bee study linking CCD to these pathogens.

How did you get involved in bee research? 

I am an entomologist by training, originally working with grasshoppers and the damage that grasshoppers did to the grasses of rangelands.

In the 1970s, after the Arab oil embargos, coal mines in the West were opened and coal-fired power plants constructed and brought online. There was considerable interest in the potential bioenvironmental impacts of this development on semi-arid rangelands. I was hired on a post-doctoral position to look at impacts to insects. I found around 6,000 colonies of bees near the Colstrip, Mont., power plants and decided that I had to include beneficial insects such as bees in my investigations.

1/1/2011 11:09:15 AM The impact of neonicotinoid insecticides onbum blebees, Honey bees and other non-target invertebrates (revised version) Vicky Kindemba 2009 October 2009 ISBN 978-1-904878-964 Edinburgh ...and then the interesting speculation: africanized honey bees are for all intents and purposes european honey bees (no more difference than between human races), the assault on them began about the same time as CCD. Honey bees like corn pollen and transport it off far and wide, maybe even from non-gmocorn to gmocorn. Might this cause problems for monsanto seed growing? What is the best way to keep gmo-crops free of *wild* pollen? The epa imidacloprid studies were done on rape --changed from corn-- and has confounds (in the scientific sense). Bees don't prefer rape pollen, the rape fields were too small, the bee treated/non-treated foraging ranges overlapped.

1/1/2011 10:20:05 AM

bees... ccd... epa... Germany, Italy and France have already banned Clothianidin why hasn't the EPA? "EPA Memorandum PC Code: 044309 Date: November 2nd, 2010 SUBJECT: Clothianidin Registration of Prosper T400 Seed Treatment on Mustard Seed (Oilseed and Condiment) and Poncho/Votivo Seed Treatment on Cotton. page 2 par 1 Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non- target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides(e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects. "The British Beekeepers' Association has today announced plans to end its controversial practice of endorsing pesticides in return for cash from leading chemical manufacturers.The endorsement of four products as 'bee-friendly' in return for £17,500 a year caused outrage among many beekeepers because one of the companies, Bayer Crop Science, makes pesticides that are widely implicated in the deaths of honeybees worldwide."

12/20/2010 10:05:18 PM

I once read (many years before this form of CCD was reported) about one type of Queen bees that invade a hive as their "smell" is more neutral than another invading bee species. It sounded just like CCD we hear of today. I don't remember if they were South American or South African Bees. Since the new queens don't trigger the original queen to attack, she is treated by the drones like the original queen all the while they are there. The eggs that the new queen lays become queens just like her, and also begin laying eggs in that hive. Eventually they replace so many of the drones that the food consumption by all the new queens exceeds the supply taken in by the remaining drones and the colony collapses. The new swarm of invader Queens spread out and look for other hives to invade. Has anyone thought to look into if this could possibly have anything to do with the CCD? All it would take is one successful queen to get into one hive, and then we transport them all over the USA!

alexey chudakov
12/20/2010 7:46:22 PM

I did see how beekeepers, who had less than 200 hives claimed lost of 450-500. They presented empty hives to get support from government. This is why You will never see there dead bees. Some beekeepers place beehives right on the ground,humidity and ants force families to leave the hive in summertime. I worked on commercial farm in Israel and know how it suppose to look like. If bees leave hive its beekeeper's fault.

t brandt
12/19/2010 9:02:26 PM

a] The honey bee is, afterall, an invasive species in NA. As its numbers decline, don't the numbers of its native competitors re-bound? b] Has anyone studied the natural population dynamics of the honeybee? Could this decline, for which no culprit is obvious, be merely a manifestation of natural cyclicity of numbers. The 17 yr cicada would be an extreme example of such a phenomenon. c] How big an economic probelm is it really, given that the crops taking up the most acreage in NA (corn, beans & wheat) are all wind pollinated anyways?

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