Written By David Greisman
On a warm, humid early summer evening, thousands of honeybees congregated at the entrances of hives set up in multiple spots around the yard in front of Steve McDaniel’s Manchester home.
Each hive – the standard variety described by Philadelphia clergyman L.L. Langstroth in 1853 and used by apiarists in much of the world – contained a colony of between 50,000 and 100,000 honeybees; insects that, as their name suggests, produce honey that the bees eat and that beekeepers harvest to eat and to sell.
Although McDaniel’s apiary looked like a healthy habitat, it contrasted with the dismal situation from earlier in the year, when the master beekeeper lost 10 of his 22 colonies.
Then, when an unusually warm January encouraged many trees to bloom, some of the bees thought it was spring and over-expanded their brood nest. When temperatures shifted and the trees froze, the bees were forced to retreat from their honey stores, and many starved to death with about 50 pounds of honey just an inch or two out of reach.
McDaniel and other Maryland beekeepers contended with the climate, which regularly influences colony losses each winter, and a colony’s population can drop to 15,000 to 20,000 bees. But as of July, apiarists in approximately 35 states were responding to a drastically diminished number of honeybees resulting from what researchers have termed Colony Collapse Disorder.
“The classic discovery is that the beekeeper goes out to his beehives and opens them up, and there are no bees or virtually no bees left inside the boxes,” said Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation.
The recent history of beekeeping is full of names describing similar heavy die-offs: fall dwindle disease, autumn collapse, spring dwindle, May disease. Colony Collapse Disorder appears not to be seasonal, but year-round, according to a document released online by the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium.
The exact cause is unknown.
Early hypotheses included ideas as curious as radiation transmitted by cell phone towers. In late June, federal agriculture secretary Mike Johanns said that the investigation was centering around four areas: stress related to the nutrition, transportation and beekeepers’ colony management strategy; parasite mites; pathogens such as bacteria; fungi or viruses, and pesticides.
A large percentage of the nation’s honeybees belong to a small percentage of its beekeepers. Unlike the hobbyists or sideliners who keep some bees for their own enjoyment or to subsidize their incomes by selling honey or pollination services, these commercial apiarists rent out their colonies on a large scale so that their bees can pollinate the nation’s crops.
“These losses are primarily happening to commercial beekeepers who push the daylights out of their colonies,” said Allen Hayes, a master beekeeper from western Howard County. “Bees evolved to live in one tree, in one spot most of their lives, not to be moved several times a year via truck and not to be closed up and moved from Maryland to California, which is what some beekeepers do today. That puts some degree of stress on a colony.”
That stress, Hayes said, can combine with other maladies that colonies normally deal with, akin to the way in which people can live with bacteria on their skin that does little harm until the skin is broken.
But the effect of Colony Collapse Disorder is not limited to apiculture – it has an impact on the nation’s agriculture, too.
“One third of everything we eat must be pollinated by the honeybee,” said Jerry Fischer, state bee inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “If not for the honeybee, there would not be enough food on the planet.”
The honeybee’s pollination is essential to a wide range of crops, including almonds, apples, cantaloupes, cherries, cotton and pumpkins, experts said. But Colony Collapse Disorder could also strike the beef and dairy industries, because honeybee pollination is necessary for the alfalfa hay that cattle eat.
“Beekeepers have been trying to tell people for years that these bees are not pests, they’re vital to nature,” said McDaniel, 60, who has worked with honeybees for 30 years. “People are now more aware of how valuable honeybees are.”
Colony Collapse Disorder has yet to hit Carroll County or Maryland, Fischer said, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t concerned.
“It’s certainly something that we talk about every meeting,” said Pat McGregor, president of the 100- to 150-member Carroll County Beekeepers Association. McGregor has been a beekeeper for about six years, with eight colonies currently in the backyard of his Manchester home. “Because I haven’t really seen it in Maryland, it doesn’t concern me as a beekeeper as much as the Varroa mites and the other pests out there.”
Even if the nation’s beekeepers aren’t unanimously worried about Colony Collapse Disorder, the American Beekeeping Federation’s Fore said that his organization is still concerned.
“We aren’t assuming anything, except that if there are no corrective measures taken before we go into another winter, then we’ll have the situation over again,” he said. “We’re encouraging the government to step up the research it’ll take to find the cause, and once the cause is found, we’re hoping the solution will be easier to identify.”