Deadly Bee Syndrome Strikes Hives in Arkansas

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jun. 18, 2007 12:00 am  

A mysterious bee malady, Colony Collapse Disorder, is killing bees in Arkansas, posing a threat to agriculture.

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Arkansas is among 35 states in the nation experiencing "Colony Collapse Disorder," a mysterious syndrome that's killing honeybees by the billions and threatening the production of billions of dollars worth of crops throughout the United States.

Beekeepers began seeing huge losses in their bee colonies last fall, with bee deaths of from more than 50 percent to between 80 and 90 percent. In a survey of 384 beekeeping operations between September and March, the Apiary Inspectors of America found that 24 percent of them had lost at least 50 percent of their bees, meeting the official definition of Colony Collapse Disorder.

The massive bee die-offs prompted congressional hearings in March, and researchers are struggling to find the cause. It remains elusive.

What beekeepers and scientists find particularly puzzling about the disorder is the complete disappearance of bees; typically, no bee remains are found in or near the hives. Colony Collapse Disorder is marked by two other anomalies:

- Although the hive may appear normal from the outside, inside the hive only a few mature bees are found caring for developing bees;

- Usually when a hive is weakened or abandoned, bees from other colonies or other predators raid the hive's honey, but in CCD, the stricken hive's honey is left untouched. Honeybees provide two main commercial products, honey and beeswax, and one essential agricultural service, pollination.

"Pollination in the U.S. is worth about 50 times the amount of honey that they produce -- $220 million worth of honey and $14.6 billion worth of pollination," said Ed Levi, apiary specialist with the Arkansas State Plant Board.

The value of the bees' pollination service has been estimated at $694 million annually in Arkansas, Levi said.

Honeybees are needed to pollinate more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "One out of every three bites that we eat is because of honeybees," Levi said.

Among the crops that depend on the honeybee for pollination are almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, cucumbers, pears, strawberries and pumpkins. Other crops, including soybeans, are enhanced by honeybee pollination. Honeybees are an essential link on the food chain, and when they're at risk, the food chain is too.

Hard Hit in West Ridge
Kevin Jester, owner and operator of Jester Bee Co. in West Ridge (Mississippi County), has been a commercial beekeeper for 19 years. He normally has about 2,000 hives, but with the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder -- or the "disappearing disease," as it was initially known -- he saw his hives dwindle to 200. Jester has built back up to 500 hives now, but he sounds discouraged, and both he and Levi have diagnosed Colony Collapse Disorder in his hives.

"I've lost more bees than anybody else around," Jester said.

"Our normal revenues ... should be close to $300,000," he said. The last year was "closer to $100,000. And this year I'm not sure."

Jester Bee Co. makes its money from pollination, the sale of bees and honey production. But for the past two years, the firm hasn't had income from the sale of its bees' pollination services because of CCD.

"Our bee sales were less than half [of normal] last year and will probably be 20 percent of normal this year, and the honey production was about 80 percent below normal. We made almost no honey last year," Jester said. "And this year it's definitely going to be down. I just don't know how bad yet."

Jester, a second-generation beekeeper, said he first recognized a problem with his bees in February 2006. He winters his bees, as do other beekeepers, in southern Mississippi, because of the milder winters. But the weather had been harsh, so he figured that was why his colonies "weren't building up."

By March, however, the bees still had not multiplied as they should. Jester attributed the lack of growth to his failure to treat for the various diseases that can afflict honeybees, so he began the necessary treatments. He was able to fill his orders but just barely. "During the summer, we thought we'd recover, and the bees never built up."

In July 2006, he brought his hives to Arkansas to summer, as is his practice. Still, the bees refused to flourish. Other beekeepers were reporting problems, particularly in the Dakotas, which were in the middle of a drought. "At that point there were several people having problems, but they were all blaming it on different conditions," Jester said.

By fall 2006, word about the loss of bees had spread. "They started calling it 'disappearing disease,' " Jester said.

Finally, "over the winter we started talking and realizing that lots of people were having problems," he said.

On the Road
Arkansas is home to about two dozen commercial beekeeping operations, Levi, of the state Plant Board, said. He considers someone who maintains 300 hives or more to be a commercial beekeeper. Other Arkansans keep hives, either as hobbies or as sideline enterprises.

Although other insects can pollinate crops, as can bats and birds, the honeybee is among the most efficient pollinator, particularly because it can be "managed" by humans and placed where farmers need them.

The numbers of wild pollinators in the United States has plunged for a variety of reasons. Experts cite loss of habitat, pesticides, single-crop agriculture and diseases, among other factors, making managed colonies that much more important to agriculture.

Many commercial beekeepers haul their hives in tractor-trailer rigs to crops around the country, charging farmers for their bees' pollination services.

California's Central Valley, with its vast acres of almond trees, is one of the premier destinations for beekeepers and their traveling hives, and Arkansas beekeepers are among those who make the yearly trek. Almonds depend on the honeybee, and California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds.

Richard Coy, vice president of Coy's Honey Farm in Jonesboro, the largest commercial beekeeping operation in Arkansas, is, like Jester, a second-generation beekeeper. Coy's father, Bobby, started the business in the late '60s, and it employs 13 people full time, including Richard's two brothers. Last year's revenue was a little more than $1 million, Richard Coy said.

Coy's Honey Farm, which had 12,000 hives at its peak, about a month ago, sells its honey and beeswax to Sue Bee Honey, a co-operative based in Sioux City, Iowa. Coy's produces its honey, a million pounds a year, from hives in southern and central Mississippi and in northeast Arkansas. Coy's keeps hives in Mississippi for its wild vegetation, which produces the best honey. The honey-making hives in Arkansas are kept in soybean and rice fields. Although the bees are in the fields to make honey, they do double duty.

"The bees, when they're collecting nectar from the soybeans, they're pollinating," Coy said. "Soybeans do not require honeybees to make a crop, but there have been some studies that show that bees increase the yield of a soybean field anywhere from 5 to 15 percent," so even crops that don't require honeybee pollination to produce are enhanced by their pollinating presence.

What has kept Coy's Honey Farm going is pollination, of almonds in California and watermelons in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.

Coy took 5,000 hives to California's almond growers in January, where the bees did their job for about a month, from Feb. 10 to March 10. After that, the bees are removed, allowing the almond growers to spray their insecticides and manage their crops. Coy said he averaged $130 a hive for those sent to California.

"My dad had enough foresight that he knew that if we didn't get into the migratory business, we'd be out of business."

Coy said that though his hives haven't experienced Colony Collapse Disorder, he's seeing higher levels of bee attrition compared with about 10 years ago. "The more mobile we became, the more bee loss we saw." Moving the hives long distances is hard on the bees.

"Our bees in the watermelons, we have a higher attrition rate," Coy said. "It's hard to say with the almond bees because they're in California during our worst weather," meaning they escape at least a portion of the annual, and more or less normal, winter die-off. But the attrition rate for the honeybees he uses to pollinate watermelons has reached 40 percent.

And though his colonies haven't been afflicted by CCD, "I'd be a fool to say I didn't fear it," Coy said.

A Matter of Attrition
Honeybees were already vulnerable before the outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder. In the last 25 years, diseases such as Varroa and tracheal mites have killed many bees, as has a parasite called the small hive beetle. "Bees are constantly being bombarded by new problems," Levi said.

The Apiary Inspectors of America, in a report published in the July 2007 issue of the American Bee Journal, said, "The apicultural industry has seen a dramatic decline in the number of honey bee colonies managed in the United States since the introduction of the honey bee tracheal mite and the Varroa mite in the 1980s. Nationwide colony numbers have dropped from 4.5 million managed colonies in 1980 to 2.4 million in 2005."

Massive bee die-offs have been reported before during the last hundred or so years, but researchers say CCD appears to be something entirely new.

Jester and others say beekeepers have come to accept increasing losses. "Ten or 15 years ago, a beekeeper could double or more the number of his colonies every year," Jester said. "Now it's a general consensus that if you can maintain your numbers, you're doing good. And that's all you can hope for.

"Thirty percent losses a year are considered normal where before if you lost 10 percent, it was considered a disaster," he said.

"I have a lot of friends who say they're just losing more bees than normal, but they're just so accustomed to it that they don't see a problem."

Levi pointed to stress as one culprit. "Beekeepers are like any other kind of farmer. They try to get the most out of their animals as they can. And sometimes we do that in a gentle way and sometimes we do that in a stressful way. Putting bees on trucks and taking them to California and then to Oregon and then to Minnesota and then to the Dakotas and then back to Texas or Florida or Arkansas has got to be stressful on bees."

Left on their own, bees from one colony or hive might swarm and form a new colony once a year, but only when conditions are right. In an effort to make up their losses, beekeepers might divide a colony of bees three or four times, which lessens the viability of the bees.

"I saw some yesterday that were absolutely pitiful," Levi said, "I couldn't believe how much this guy was working his bees -- little, teeny colonies. They're so susceptible to everything. They've got to be stressed."

That practice can be cost-effective in the short term, "but in the long term, it's not sustainable."

Jeffrey Pettis, research leader at the USDA's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., said, "We're still operating from the premise that bees are in a weakened state" from typical bee diseases or the stress of frequent movement. "This primary stress is allowing this secondary pathogen to explode and kill these bees," Pettis said.

The mystery resides in identifying the secondary pathogen. Bee colonies afflicted with CCD suffer not only from die-offs, "but trying to raise queens in these colonies has become difficult," he said.

"It's a very uphill battle of late," said Pettis, one of the top researchers into the disorder. "Most beekeepers are saying they're replacing between 30 and 50 percent of their hives of late, and that's a very high number."

The Threat to Agriculture
U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who held the congressional hearing on Colony Collapse Disorder in late March, said in a statement released at the time: "Farmers and beekeepers across the country are dependent on honey bees for their livelihoods. It is imperative that we move swiftly to get to the bottom of this, before the problem becomes even more serious."

In his testimony at the hearing, Caird Rexroad, associate administrator of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, said, "These outbreaks of unexplained colony collapse pose a threat to the pollination industry, the production of commercial honey and production of at least 30 percent of our nation's crops."

And, "This could, indeed, be the perfect storm for pollination services. With invasive pests and diseases of bees increasing over the last two decades, we may have now reached a tipping point where the bee colony can no longer fight back."

Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist, professor at Pennsylvania State University and member of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, called this disorder "a serious threat to American agriculture."

And Jeffrey Pettis, research leader at the USDA's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., told Arkansas Business that "our commercial bees are almost at the maxed-out point. For the first time we started importing bees from Australia," though he added that part of the reason behind bee importation was "international pressure."

Jester opposes the importation of bees. Previous bee immigrants were responsible for some bee diseases.

"When you've got extremely large monocultures, you can't have that without bringing in pollinators, and the only insect you can do that with is the honeybee," he said. Without bees pollinating fruit, vegetable and nut crops, the human diet would become extremely limited.

"I think humans would survive," Jester said, "but it would be a lot different world."



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