LA CRESCENT, Minnesota (WXOW) – Honey bee populations have been dropping worldwide. In the U.S. much of this decline is due to "colony collapse disorder" or CCD.
"The behavior is basically the bees leave the hive and don't come back," said Phil Pellitteri, entomologist with the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab. "And so the colony just falls apart."
The hive abandonment occurs in the winter when the colony is under the most stress. In fact, Pellitteri said surviving the winter is why these bees store honey.
"If it's excessively cold, or if you have relatively few bees, or if you have relatively small amounts of honey, the colony dies out in the winter," said Pellitteri. "They starve to death, they can't generate enough heat and freeze to death, there's all kinds of complications. So in order for the bees to be successful they have to have a lot of food and there has to be a strong colony."
Currently, the cause of colony collapse disorder is unknown. But scientists believe it's a combination factors.
"When you go back to what's happened to honey bees in the last 20-30 years," said Pellitteri," there's two parasitic mites that have come in, there's new virus diseases, there's definitely a concern about diet, there's a concern about pesticides, there's a concern about the chemicals we use to try to get rid of the mites which might cause problems, and this all kind of folds into the disorder story."
Interestingly, some honey bee colonies are more likely to be affected than others.
"It appears that the bees that are the most prone to it are bees that are under stress," said Pellitteri. "In particular, the people who have suffered the worse from it are commercial bee keepers that move their colonies… When bees are happy and healthy they don't seem to get the disorder."
To complicate matters, some loss over the winter is normal, regardless of CCD.
"This past year we lost probably 30% of our colonies in the state [of Wisconsin]," said Pellitteri. "To be honest, that's pretty typical for a severe winter. It's just natural. This is a harsh climate when you think about having to survive on your food stores. It's interesting, the year before that our losses were unusually light, about 15%, but it was also a relatively mild winter."
Colony collapse disorder came into the limelight about five years ago with a few major winter losses. However, not everyone believes this problem isn't new.
"Some people argue that this goes back over 100 years," said Pellitteri. "That there were similar types of problems seen in honey bees at different times. They used to call it ‘fall dwindle disease' among others."
Honey bees are non-native to North America but are none the less responsible for pollinating a large percentage of the fruits and vegetables that grow in American soil. Their declining numbers are a source of concern for the food industry.
"Many of our crops have been designed specifically to attract honey bees," said Pellitteri. "They've been bred for the purpose of attracting honey bees, so honey bees will pollinate them."
For years, growers like Ralph Yates, manager of Fruit Acres Inc. in La Crescent, have been bringing in bees from commercial bee keepers to aid in pollination.
"We've always done this," said Yates. "This is part of apple growing and fruit production. We bring in bees from commercial bee keepers, you have them here for pollination during blossom time and at petal fall time, when the blossom is finished and the bloom is dropped off of the trees, then the bee keepers remove the bees and we're able to go about our business."
This has prevented the orchard from seeing any losses due to CCD. But Yates said it is a serious matter for growers and consumers alike.
"50-60% of the food supply is dependant on pollination by bees," said Ralph Yates, "And when you look at who's doing all the work out there it's not so much wild bees but probably 90% of the pollination is taking place with so-called domesticated honey bees."
Without the help of the rented bees Yates said his yields would be greatly diminished.
"I just don't think we'd get the pollinating out here that we have now and the fruit production would drop as a result," said Yates. "You have to have a bee visiting that blossom for either self-pollination or cross-pollination, but you need that bee out there."
And without the help or rented bees, Yates said the orchard would be in a bind.
"Except for the wild bees there aren't too many options," said Yates. "This is why it's critical that we hope to get this problem solved and get to the bottom of it."
While domesticated honey bees play a significant roll in crop pollination, they aren't the only players. Some 400 other species of bees exist in the state of Wisconsin.
"Sometimes when people talk about honeybees becoming extinct that the end of the world was here," said Pellitteri. "That's probably really an exaggeration. On the other hand, it would grossly affect yields and make things much more difficult."
Colony Collapse Disorder doesn't appear to be affecting them in the same way, but their population is also suffering because of habitat destruction.
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