The Decline of the Honey Bee

In California, which is one of the richest growing regions of the world, the decline in honeybee populations has been going on for two decades. Honeybees are critical for distributing pollen to millions of fruit trees, vegetable crops and other crops and their decline is jeopardizing America’s $15 billion dollar American food crop industry.

In the past, honeybees were known to be threatened by mites, viruses and environmental toxins like pesticides. But at one point, even cell phone transmissions were blamed for the declining populations. 

The most recent disorder according to Time Science, is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). With CCD, worker bees disappear and their bodies cannot be found. During the past two years, one third of all colonies have collapsed this way. The theory is that a “perfect storm” of viruses and natural diseases is decimating the colonies. There was genetic damage in the sickened colonies that suggested assault by multiple and simultaneous viral infections.

Two known viruses, Deformed Wing Virus and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, are examples of viruses that are known to damage the bee’s ribosomes. This makes it easy for any viral attack to kill off the bee, and the ribosome problem is the one consistent factor that has been identified in all CCD hives. 

One development is that the honeybee genome is one that has been entirely decoded by scientists. The genes that work in the bee’s gut are the ones that help to process toxins and to trigger immune defenses. 

Scientific American discussed the ribosome issue with a team led by May Berenbaum, PhD, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 2009. A representative of the team said that the viruses tear apart the ribosomes and that,

“The ribosomes make the proteins that allow bees to respond to pesticides, to respond to diseases, to respond to poor nutrition. So the ribosomal fragments that we were finding explain a lot of things, explains among other things the observation that CCD seems to be caused by everything. And in fact, it very well might be that once the ribosomes cease functioning properly, then anything can cause bees to go under.”

Varroa mites are taking much of the blame because they are known to carry multiple viruses into the hives they attack.

The good news is that the incidences of CCD are on the decline, at 30% below the levels that have been reached throughout the crisis. This may be because the most vulnerable bees have been wiped out and that the hardier strains are able to survive.

Another issue with declining bee populations is that encroaching housing developments are excellent hosts for bee colonies that will take up housekeeping in attics. When this happens, iVillage Garden Web encourages homeowners to contact either a professional beekeeper or an exterminator who is also a beekeeper. The beekeepers can smoke out and collect those very expensive and precious bees, then put them back to work pollinating our precious food crops!