Challenges Facing Bees: Honey Bee Population Loss and More

News of honey bee population loss is becoming sadly familiar, but colony collapse isn't the only challenge bees face.

| April 2015

Varroa mite on honeybee

Varroa mites, like the one on the back of this honey bee (Apis mellifera), pose a serious threat to the health of bees and beekeeping, and may be one of the factors underlying colony collapse disorder.

Photo courtesy United States Department of Agriculture

In The Bee (Princeton University Press and Ivy Press, Limited, 2014), Noah Wilson-Rich, Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck and Andrea Quigley provide a window into the vitally important role that bees play in the life of our planet. This richly illustrated natural history of the bee takes an incomparable look at the astounding diversity of bees, blending an engaging narrative with practical, hands-on discussions of such topics as beekeeping and bee health. The following excerpt is from chapter 7, "The Challenges Faced by Bees."

In recent years, the world’s media have reported that bees seem to be dying at an unprecedented rate. Certainly there have been significant losses of honey bees, but is this a new thing, and are the losses restricted to honey bees?

Historic Bee Losses

Calamitous losses of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) have occurred at various times throughout history and throughout the world. For example, in the USA, significant losses were reported in Kentucky in 1868, then in many places in the early twentieth century, and again in the 1960s and 1970s.

More than a hundred years ago, substantial losses of bees in the UK were attributed to the “Isle of Wight disease.” This was first seen on the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England, and some claimed that it nearly wiped out the native British black honey bee (A. mellifera mellifera), although the bees remained common elsewhere in Europe.

The leading entomologists of the early twentieth century worked to uncover what lay behind these bee losses, and in 1921 the cause was identified as acarine, or tracheal, mite (Acarapsis woodi). The symptoms caused by this mite, however, do not coincide with the bees’ symptoms as reported at the time. During the 1950s, Leslie Bailey at Rothamsted Experimental Station concluded that the Isle of Wight disease was almost certainly caused by chronic bee paralysis virus, a previously unknown infectious disease.

Recent Losses

The losses that have most hit the news are those of commercial honey bees, especially those used for pollination of almonds in California and apples in Pennsylvania. In 2006 many bee farmers returned to their hives to discover most of the bees were gone, and the few they found were dead. It was at this point that the term colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first used.

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