Colony Collapse Disorder: What We Know So Far

Inspired by the iconic mascot of Honey Nut Cheerios, GMO Inside is investigating the mysterious phenomenon decimating bee populations across the country, known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Click here to sign the petition to get GMOs out of Honey Nut Cheerios.

Honey_bee_pollinatorThink about what you ate yesterday. Did you eat any apples? Cucumbers, eggplant, or broccoli in last night’s dinner? What about tomato sauce? Was that almond butter you spread on your toast yesterday morning?

These are just a few foods we can thank honey bees for. 

Pollinators are crucial to the food system. By transferring pollen and seeds from one plant to another, natural pollinators like honey bees, butterflies, and bats are like plant fertilizers, triggering food production. 

Honey bees are particularly important pollinators, filling a significant economic role in the modern food system. In the US, commercial honey bees pollinate an annual crop value amounting to over $14 billion dollars. Honey is valued at an additional $150 million dollars each year.

The dependence of our food system on the beekeeping industry is largely unseen to the average consumer – but without honey bees acting as crop pollinators, our most basic food items would no longer be available.

Unfortunately, a mysterious phenomenon is posing a major threat to the food industry: Colony Collapse Disorder. 

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a potentially devastating event attributed to the recent decline in honey bee populations. In the US, over 25% of commercial honey bees have disappeared, sparking a scientific investigation into the drivers behind CCD.

Early findings have shown multiple factors at play, so far including emerging diseases, pesticide poisoning, changes in honey bee foraging habitat, and stress.

Neonicotinoids are part of an extremely common class of pesticides identified as potentially significant contributors to the decline in bee populations. A 2012 study published in Science Magazine demonstrated that exposure to nonlethal levels of neonicotinoids can have an effect on bee survival, and with potential contributions to hive collapse. Another peer-reviewed study published last year in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) indicated that neonicotinoid exposure can negatively impact immune responses in bees, making colonies more susceptible to viral pathogens. And while colony losses have heavily impacted commercialized honey bee populations, a newly released study from the University of London shows that emerging viruses in commercialized honey bees are now spreading to wild bumblebees.

Efforts to raise awareness and mobilize the public around this issue have ramped up over the past few years. Earlier this month, Friends of the Earth delivered thousands of petitions asking Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling neonicotinoid pesticides that are harmful to bees. NRDC has also produced a handy fact sheet, Why We Need Bees. You can download your own copy here.

With the CCD conversation heating up, GMOs in particular have come into question as a potential contributing factor. However, neonicotinoids are so widely used that they are applied to both conventional (non-GMO) and genetically modified crops. With the scientific knowledge we have so far, demystifying Colony Collapse Disorder will require a closer look through the big picture lens of industrialized agriculture.

There are still many unanswered questions about the direct causes and effects contributing to unprecedented rates of hive collapse across the country. However, the existing consensus is obvious: with recent hive losses so widespread and significant, the consequences could be severe.

From our earth’s ecological systems to the food supply we depend on–and the complex, interwoven relationships in between–what hurts the bees will ultimately hurt us.

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    April 12, 2014 at 4:08 pm