If you purchase an independently reviewed item through our site, we earn an affiliate commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a common condition that is characterized by a mysterious loss or disappearance of the colony’s adult worker bee population. They leave behind a colony that has few bees, with such small numbers that the colony becomes unable to sustain itself until it eventually collapses. Additionally, the queen bee, a few young worker bees, and plenty of food reserves are usually left behind. These food reserves even remain untouched for several weeks by invaders such as robber bees, hive beetles, and wax moths. Colony Collapse Disorder has a serious impact on beekeeping, with the majority of affected beekeepers reporting a loss of up to 90% in their operations. The cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is yet to be pinpointed with certainty. However, its effects are massive and apparent.
Signs of Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony Collapse Disorder is exhibited by a number of tell-tale signs below:
- The disappearance of adult bees. A colony that previously appeared to be healthy soon collapses. This gave birth to the term “disappearing disease”.
- A colony with a queen, capped brood, young worker bees, and plenty of food reserves such as pollen and honey is left behind.
- The condition is not based on seasons and can occur at any time of the year.
- Absence of dead bees on the outside of the hive or ground outside the honeybee colony.
- Invaders and opportunistic creatures such as the hive beetles, robber bees, and wax moths avoid the abandoned hive despite the fact that these hives contain plenty of food.
- Beehives with bees still left exhibit small clusters and there exist laying workers.
The outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder will initially affect the worker bees which will be the first to leave. The abandoned queen bee with young brood eventually dies out since they are no longer under the care of the worker bees.
History of Colony Collapse Disorder
Early records of Colony Collapse Disorder date back to 1869 when an anonymous author wrote about the loss of honeybees, with plenty of honey left behind. The disappearance of the bees was speculated to be a result of a lack of pollen, the hot summer, or poisonous honey.
Later on, some cases of colony losses were recorded between the years 1891 to 1896 by Aikin. These were cases where large clusters vanished or dwindled to a few clusters with a queen. This occurred in May and led to the term “May Disease”. Researchers were able to isolate, culture, and identify symptoms likened to Colony Collapse Disorder.
Similar honeybee epidemics occurred in the past between the years 1905 and 1919, when beekeepers lost 90% of their honeybee colonies in the U.K. This led to the term “Isle of Wight disease”. The affected colonies were situated on the Island of Wight in the U.K. The bees that were affected at the time could not fly but rather crawled from the entrance.
The cause of the affliction was not clear and researchers could not come to a conclusive agreement. Some believed it was due to Nosema disease while others were of the opinion that it was due to the honey bee pest the tracheal mite, known by the name Acarapis woodi. Some linked the loss to starvation.
Australia has also had its share of losses historically. In 1910 beekeepers in the Stawell district lost 59% of their colonies and those remaining were severely crippled. A similar incident occurred in the year 1872 in the region.
In 1915 large-scale losses of honeybee colonies were reported in Portland, Oregon. Florida and California reported huge losses during the same period. Later in 1917 Canada, New Jersey, Ohio, and New York reported massive losses of honeybee colonies. During this time there was an abundance of pollen and this was believed to be the main cause of the losses. The disease was termed the “disappearing disease” and bees could be found dead at the hive entrance. The disease was described as disappearing after a short period without the need for treatment.
Other major losses are on record including the 1960s record of bees disappearing in winter and fall in Louisiana, California, and Texas. The losses in the Rio Grande River region of Texas occurred after the area experienced unseasonable cold that was followed by rainfall that lasted for 2 weeks. In Louisiana, the honeybee colonies that were affected were tested and found to be free from tracheal mites, nosema disease, paralysis virus, septicemia, and external parasites. These affected bees had stopped clustering and researchers concluded that the problem was genetic. The affected colonies in California left behind plenty of food reserves and the remaining bees appeared healthy.
What Causes Colony Collapse Disorder?
As mentioned earlier, researchers have stipulated that Colony Collapse Disorder be caused by a number of possible factors that include:
- Farming practices
- Declining biodiversity
- Genetically modified plants
- Living organisms
- Use of pesticides
- Climate change
- Electromagnetic Radiation
1. Farming Practices
Modern-day farming practices are wiping out honeybee populations. Pesticide usage has for decades been blamed for the declining bee populations. However, farming practices such as the large-scale production of single plant species have been found to be a major cause of declining bee populations.
The practice of monoculture is a common practice in the U.S. and other regions of the world. The U.S. alone has about 440 million acres of land solely under one crop. These fields subject honeybees to a mass bloom and this is not beneficial to pollinators. The crops also lead to pollinator aggregation within one single spot leading to the easy spread of diseases.
The single crops planted in large-scale agricultural lands guarantee the availability of nectar and pollen on a massive scale to pollinators. This however does ensure bees can access the 5 different pollen types, at minimum, from 5 different plant species for optimal body immunity to diseases and pathogens. Instead, the monoculture has aggravated the prevalence of disease-causing pathogens and parasites in bees.
In addition, agricultural lands that have been subjected to monoculture practices for many years experience habitat loss on a massive scale. This is yet another outcome that will worsen food and habitat availability for bees.
Modern agricultural farms have also replaced cover crops with synthetic fertilizers. Cover crops support insect pollinators such as the honeybee. Additionally, migratory beekeeping has subjected honeybees to torture and disrupted their normal biological activities. This might be beneficial to man but proves to expose the bees to a myriad of risks.
2. Declining Biodiversity
The wide colony collapse disorder has been attributed to the declining biodiversity that has been a result of human activity. Other factors that have also contributed to the failing ecosystems across the globe include pollution and intensive land use. Wild bees in particular have been hugely affected by agricultural intensification that has resulted in a decline in overall biodiversity.
The decline in biodiversity means nesting sites and floral diversity are negatively impacted. These provide a home and food source to both wild bees and domesticated honeybees. Lack of this diversity will mean bees are unable to meet their nutritional requirements. The lack of a balanced diet for bees affects their resilience to pathogens and overall health.
Diverse and balanced nutrition is required by bees and guarantees population stability. Bees source their nutrients from flowering plants. Flowers also provide much-needed medically active metabolites. All these are derived from an abundance of flowers and not from a single flower. This is only accessible within a wide diversity of plants and flowers and this has not been the case in the recent past. The lack of required biodiversity to support a healthy bee population has therefore led to the collapse of most colonies.
Pollution has been found to have a direct impact on honeybees and is a probable cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees and other insects that follow the scent of flowers are affected by air pollution. The contamination of air particles makes it almost impossible for these insects to locate flowers.
Some of the key air pollutants include ammonia, nitrogen, nitrogen oxides, and ozone. Ammonia that pollutes the environment originates from fertilizer use and animal waste. Nitrogen is a huge threat to biodiversity and is mainly produced through acidification and nutrient enrichment. The burning of fossil fuels generates nitrogen oxides that pollute the environment. As for ozone, this is formed from complex chemical reactions that rely on sunlight.
Pollutants affect honeybee behavior, memory, and learning. Bees that have been exposed to pollutants take longer to learn. Their memories are also impacted, reducing repeat flower visits by 83 to 90%. Pollinators that have been exposed to pollutants are unable to recognize, memorize, or locate floral sources.
Pollutants also affect the quality and abundance of food sources. It alters pollen, nectar, and amino acid concentrations in flowers. This directly affects insect populations since they rely on these food sources for survival. Pollutants have led to the death of bee broods in colonies due to food contamination.
Pollution also affects existing plant variety in honeybee habitats. Certain chemicals derived from agricultural fertilizer applications have been found to accelerate the growth of specific shrubs and inhibit the growth of others. This means less-sensitive plant species become dominant in these areas. The biodiversity is consequently affected by pollution.
Polluted air reduces pollination by 14 to 31 percent. Lab studies conducted by researchers established a tremendous impact of pollutants on insect pollinators. This has led to the proposition that the air population could be a possible cause of the declining honeybee population. This is a factor that is intertwined with other factors such as herbicides and pesticide usage. All these have had a share in contributing to the global decline of honeybees.
4. Genetically Modified Plants
This is another cause of the declining honeybee population and is linked to Colony Collapse Disorder. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been designed to produce their own insecticides. These chemicals are inadvertently ingested by honeybees during their foraging trips. The harmful artificial proteins might end up wiping out honeybee colonies, even though scientists have not come up with a conclusive agreement on this.
Pollen collected from genetically modified crops is not ideal for honeybees. Bees require natural pollen and these should be sourced from 5 different types of trees to guarantee strong immune systems in bees. The lack thereof greatly weakens bees making it impossible for bees to naturally fight infections. The ultimate effect of all this is colony collapse.
5. Living Organisms
Honeybees are a target of invasive species such as mites and beetles. The small hive beetle in particular targets honeybee colonies. They lay their eggs in beehives and damage honeycombs. This consequently forces the bees to abandon their hive.
The small hive beetle’s larva usually burrows through combs. They target wax combs and cell caps and will gorge on honey, bee brood, and pollen. The larva will also defecate in stored honey compromising its quality. The beetle targets weak honeybee colonies. It usually forces the queen to stop egg-laying and this impacts the adult bee population in the colony.
Severe small hive beetle infestation causes bees to leave the hive. The beetle will also target hives that have a weak queen or those without a queen. The beetle can be spread from one hive to the other through the movement of hives. Package bees can also bring along the beetle. The beetle might also be spread from used hive components, comb honey, collected pollen, or beeswax capping.
The Varroa mite is another invasive species that has been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder. It is a contributor given its serious devastation on honeybee colonies. The mite feeds on the bee hemolymph, targeting both the adult bee and honeybee brood.
Varroa mites have adapted to the life cycle of honeybees and with a strong preference for drone cells. They develop inside capped cells of the bee pupae. The main effects of these mites on bees include weight loss, reduction of lifespan, reduced survival rates, and the spread of viral diseases.
The varroa mites are a vector of diseases such as the Deformed Wing Virus, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, Kashmir Bee Virus, Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, and the Sacbrood Virus. The mite population is at its peak between spring and autumn when brood production is at its all-time high.
6. Use of Pesticides
Pesticide usage has been linked directly to Colony Collapse Disorder. The majority of pesticides used for killing pests in farming operations kill honeybees, asides from the pests themselves. In fact, most countries across the globe have banned some of the pesticides that harm bees.
One of the major chemicals that is widely used in insecticides is neonicotinoid compounds. These have been linked to the huge losses seen in honeybee colonies. The compounds were proven by scientists to affect worker bee behavior. The exposed bees were inactive and were least likely to carry out their nursing responsibilities. Instead, they would be found on the hive edges.
Honeybee losses resulting from pesticides usage will vary depending on a number of factors:
- Plant growth stages at the time of application – colonies that exhibit the biggest effect are those exposed to flowering plants that have been sprayed with chemicals.
- Toxicity levels – different chemicals have varying toxicity levels with the majority of miticides, fungicides, and herbicides being relatively nontoxic to honeybees. However high-risk chemicals such as imidan, Sevin, Diazinon, and Malathion pose a bigger risk to honeybees. These should not be applied to booming crops to avoid harming bees.
- Formulation – the chemical formulation affects its toxicity even on chemicals within the same class. For instance, powder or dust formulations tend to be more hazardous to bees since these are trapped on the bee hairs. On the flip side, granular insecticides are less harmful to bees.
- Chemical’s residual action – the insecticides’ residual action will determine its safety to pollinators. Those that degrade within a few hours are safe for use when foragers are not active. This can be applied in the evening to minimize potential harm to pollinators.
- Prevailing weather conditions – insecticides tend to linger longer when temperatures are low. Winds can also cause chemicals to drift to honeybee colonies.
- Hive location – honeybee colonies that are positioned in close proximity to fields where insecticides are used face a higher risk.
7. Climate Change
Climate change has played a huge role in contributing to the global decline of honeybee populations. The change in climate across the globe has disrupted the normal process in flowering plants which in turn affects honeybees.
Flowers now bloom earlier or later than anticipated and this is completely out of sync with the normal biological process of honeybees. The pollinators that come out of their hibernation find the flowers that provide food already bloomed. This, in combination with other factors, lead to a collapse in honeybees.
The change in climate has resulted in habitat loss rendering the areas that provide food for bees non-existing. For instance, uncultivated lands have been converted into large-scale production farmlands since existing pieces are not enough. This has led to reduced nesting habitats and forage for bees. The reduction in pollinator-friendly shrubs and plants by man in an effort to shun away animals such as rodents and deer has also impacted bee populations.
Unpredictable weather conditions such as extreme rainfall in areas where this was never the case disrupt foraging patterns in bees. Floods and wildfires have also destroyed honeybee habitats and led to food shortages. Droughts have also led to water shortages and a lack of nectar and pollen leading to starvation in honeybee colonies.
Varroa mites and other pathogens thrive when honeybees forage and there could be an increase in varroa and pathogen populations due to climate change. The abnormal rise in temperatures during fall and winter as a result of climate change extends the honeybee foraging period. This will mean the mites and other pathogens enjoy an extended period of spreading from one colony to the other.
There is also the effect on the nutritional quality of pollen and nectar. This applies when flowers bloom within the normal season but under extreme weather conditions due to climate change. These flowers produce low-quality food for bees and this affects the colony’s health and overall immunity. Over time such colonies are prone to Colony Collapse Disorder.
8. Electromagnetic Radiation
Colony Collapse Disorder has been linked to electromagnetic radiation generated by cell phone towers. Honeybees being dependent on existing natural magnetic and electromagnetic fields for navigation are affected by the stronger artificial fields. The bees utilize natural fields for orientation and navigation.
Artificial magnetic and electromagnetic fields are never the same but keep changing in line with technological changes. Consequently, honeybees that have been misled by these fields end up lost and will not find their way back to their colonies.
Additionally, bees rely on Earth’s natural magnetic and electromagnetic fields when designing honeycombs. This can be done even in darkness. The bees are able to detect even the minutest magnetic fields. The ever-increasing emission of artificial fields affects the homing ability of bees and their behavior with respect to natural fields.
Artificial electromagnetic fields also have an effect on the honeybee’s cryptochrome pigments that not only help with magnetic navigation but also solar navigation. Bees use the sun’s position for orientation and navigation. Mobile phones disrupt honeybee biological clocks and they are unable to fly in the right direction. The ultimate effect of all this is the honeybees disappearing mysteriously since they are unable to locate their beehive.
Effects of Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony Collapse Disorder has a huge impact on the bees and also the entire ecosystem. Its main effects cut across a number of areas.
1. Global Economic Effect
Bees play an important role in modern agriculture. They generate income for beekeepers from honey production and pollination services. Colony Collapse Disorder impacts beekeeping directly in addition to disrupting and negatively affecting the production of the many crops and fruits that rely on pollination services.
In the U.S. alone, commercially grown crops to the tune of 90-plus varieties rely on pollination services. These comprise vegetables and fruit trees whose economic value is estimated to be in the billions. Examples of these include the almond fields of California, whose annual revenue is estimated to be $1.9 billion. These fields require on average a total of 1 million bee colonies for pollination. The declining numbers of honeybee colonies pose a big risk to these agricultural enterprises that rely on pollination services.
Honey and other hive products generate huge income for beekeepers globally. Beekeepers in major beekeeping regions such as Canada, Chile, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia benefit from the shipment of various high-demand honeybee products.
The value of honey production in the U.S. was valued at 321.22 million at the end of 2021. As of the end of 2022, the global apiculture market was valued at $10.3 billion. The industry is expected to hit the $15.3 billion mark by the end of 2032. Honey finds its way into many industries including food and beverages industries, cosmetics, research firms, manufacturing, pharmaceutical industry, and many others.
Other honeybee products used in many industries include propolis, bee venom, bee bread, royal jelly, beeswax, and honeydew. These products serve many purposes. Propolis is rich in natural antibiotics and is used in anti-aging products. It is also used in cosmetic products. Royal jelly is a potent product that is used to enrich the diet of the elderly. Bee venom serves as a counter to bee stings and also serves as a potent remedy for HIV.
Honey is used as a cure for many health problems. Heel burns, blood sugar, cough, wounds, ulcers, and many other body and health issues are countered with the use of honey. Honey is also used for making cosmetic products, soaps, and medicines. All these have a huge economic value.
Colony collapse will only mean one thing, a huge economic loss across all major industries in the global market. The economic ramifications of Colony Collapse Disorder are staggering given the innumerable industries that rely on honeybees directly or indirectly.
2. Effect on Global Food Security
Colony Collapse Disorder has the potential of impacting global food security since pollinators play a direct role in supporting food production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), pollinators support a third of global food production. Bees pollinate 70 of every 100 crop species that feed 90% of the global population.
Pollinators pick up pollen from flowers and spread it from one plant to another. This supports the wide variety of fruit trees and food crops in existence across the globe. Doing this allows these plants and crops to reproduce. Honeybees play an important role in food production, easily dwarfing their role of producing honey. In fact, honeybee benefits agricultural production through pollination by 10 to 20 times in terms of the total value compared to the value derived from their production of wax and honey.
Crops that rely on honeybee pollination include almonds, apples, squash, melons, broccoli, cranberries, and pumpkins. The honeybee guarantees an uninterrupted supply of food that ends up on dinner tables in households. Colony Collapse Disorder has wiped out billions of honeybees over the last few years proving to jeopardize the global food security.
A decrease in agricultural output as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder will create problems on a huge scale as countries will struggle to feed their population. The effect will also be felt by animals that rely on the wide variety of plants pollinated by bees.
4. Effect on Global Biodiversity
The majority of the plants existing in the environment rely on honeybees. Without the bees, this variety of plant species will be wiped out. The bees play an important role in the life cycle of various flowers and plants.
Certain species of solitary bees have evolved and specialized in the pollination of certain flowers and crops. They have therefore become an important part of these plants. The absence of specialized bees will mean such plants cease to reproduce and their extinction will be inevitable.
Unfortunately, the bee population, including the honeybees has been on a downward spiral due to factors such as Colony Collapse Disorder. As these bees die, the various plants that rely on them will be lost. This will eventually lead to the extinction of most plants.
The wide array of animals and plants that are found across different ecosystems relies on bees. Without bees, animals will not enjoy the abundant fields of shrubs, crops, and trees that provide food for their survival. Bees support a variety of plants, starting from tiny cactuses to large trees that provide food and shelter to other organisms.
As the pollinating bees move from plant to plant they fertilize these plants making it possible for them to produce seeds that ensure the surrounding habitat thrives. Bees play a huge role in guaranteeing productive landscapes. Nonetheless, Colony Collapse Disorder serves to counter the benefits the overall ecosystem derives from honeybees and other types of bees including the solitary native bees.
How to Help Bees
We all have a role to play in order to help stop the rate of disappearance of honeybees. You can do the following to help honeybees:
- Avoid or minimize pesticide use – you are encouraged to practice organic farming or use pesticides when flowers are not fully bloomed. This will help minimize the contamination of pollen and nectar. Use natural ways to keep pests out of your farm or yard instead of applying harmful chemicals.
- Plant bee friendly flowers – this is the easiest way to support all types of bees. You can easily find a wide variety of bee-friendly flowers that grow in your locality. Plant these in your backyard. You can also allow clover, wildflowers, and other bee-friendly shrubs to freely grow within your garden or yard.
- Support local beekeepers – you can do this by buying locally produced honey or joining beekeeping. This will ensure hardworking beekeepers continue to raise healthy and sustainable honeybee colonies.
Honeybee colony loss has been happening for more than 100 years. This in addition to what has been happening in the past decades is what scientists refer to as Colony Collapse Disorder. The causes of CCD have been speculated and scientists are relentless in their effort to pinpoint what could be killing the honeybees. Modern techniques and new tools are being developed to address this huge issue that has crippled honeybees in most parts of the world. With the information gained from this article, do your part to help honeybees and other pollinators in any way you can.