The Plight of the Humble Bee

It is easy to wax poetic about honey bees. Fragile, fascinating, fruitful, and feisty, the once ubiquitous wild honey bee is now few and far between. Feral (wild) honey bee colony numbers have been decimated by loss of habitat, pesticides, infestations of an imported fungus and a mite. The mite clogs the adult bee’s trachea and the fungus kills the larval bees.

Scientists are working on several promising ways to thwart these contagion threats–cross breeding with more hardy colonies (for example the Russian Honey Bee), genetic engineering, and cures or controls for the diseases themselves.

In the first half of the 20th century, hives were common on most farms. Between the domestic and feral honey bees, nobody gave a lot more thought to the process–pollination just happened. Now, with the death of wild honey bees, fewer small farms and hobby apiaries (bee farms), beekeeping, honey production and the renting of hives has evolved as an integral part of modern agribusiness.

For many, beekeeping is not a stay-at-home calling. Many larger apiaries load their hives on tractor trailers and go south for the winter. In addition to being able to harvest more honey (warmer climate means the bees eat less of their honey stores), keepers can more effectively keep an eye on the health of their bees. Hives in the colder climates can not be disturbed during the winter.

“How clever!” you might think, to move the bees to food sources, but the ancient Egyptians did it first–or at least they wrote about it first. They would load the hives on a barge and follow spring along the Nile, moving the boats at night when the bees were back from their daily toils.

You might also think bees would be confused by having their homes moved. Not the case. Within a matter of hours the bees are settled at a new location and scout bees have located pollen sources and communicated them to the hive. According to a 1989 article in Science News, they decipher food locations by “listening to the dance” performed by scout bees.

Scientists have largely decoded bee dances, but they did not yet understand exactly how one bee perceives another’s dance signals. Now, for the first time, researchers have shown directly that honey bees can detect and discriminate among airborne sounds simulating those created in their dances, says study coauthor William F. Towne of Kutztown (Pa.) University.

Researchers at a university in Denmark are working to create a “dancing-bee robot” that could guide bees to pollinate specific locations–a sort of “misinformation” dance fooling the bees into doing more of our bidding.

Why do scientists and farmers care so much about the honey bee? One estimate I read puts the worth of honey bees to the aggregate US agricultural crop at about $14 billion a year. That’s the value of additional crop produced in bee-pollinated fields verses the value of crop from fields not a-buzz with honey bees.

Some crops, almonds, for instance, are pollinated only by honeybees. Our New York State apple and stone fruit crops are also highly dependent on the honey bee and farmers now rent hives every spring to ensure pollination.

Mike Biltonen of Stone Ridge Orchard said he pays about $40 per hive during the pollination season and a single hive accommodates about about two acres. For each really top quality apple picked, its blossom had to have visits from about six bees. Mike said he likes the hives that have just come back from the Almond orchards in California because the bees are really “prompted” to pollinate. Those hives are stronger in number of bees and activity level from the day they arrive. The bees have never really had a “down-time,” but these hives hard to find. Mike’s rented hives are usually local or have wintered down south. On dark rainy days all bees just stay home, but fortunately, it takes just one really good day for the bees to work their magic on an orchard.

As to the value of the honey from apple blossoms, the question gets sticky. One source said honey made from apple pollen is not palatable to us, but the bees seem to find it agreeable. Another source said it is fine tasting honey. Mike said no honey is ever exclusively from one pollen source–hence the confusion. Most table honey is from clover and wild flowers if you believe the labels.

Worker bees, all female, live about six weeks if they avoid the common disasters of pesticide, mites, fungal infections, and panicked people swatting them into oblivion. During its busy six weeks, the worker bee has several jobs and lives on nectar and pollen. Early in life, she tends the baby bees, then later goes pollen collecting. The guy bees, drones, are just around to “pollinate” the queen.

Since 1907, someone has been keeping close track of the causes of honey bee death. The Agricultural Research Service is a diagnostic testing laboratory in Maryland. Every year, concerned individuals package and ship more than 2,000 honey bee carcasses to the center for a definitive “autopsy.”

The service helps the agricultural community stay alert for new diseases as well as taking action to cure disease before they spread. According to Hachiro Shimanuki, who heads the Agricultural Research Service lab, currently, something called American foulbrood is the “second biggest threat to honey bees today, after mites.

In addition to diagnosis, just keeping gross statistics on bee deaths helps provide answers. When scientists found a decline of a specific cause of death within a given population, they become alert to potential natural defenses. For instance, when the cause of death from European foulbrood disappeared in southern New Jersey, scientist investigated and found something that was keeping it at bay. Although it was another problematic fungus, they were able to isolate the chemical inhibiting European foulbrood and could work toward a cure.

Just as we fear human diseases’ growing resistant to the effects of antibiotics, entomologists are always trying to develop new weapons in the honey bee vs microbe battle. Appreciating all that bees do for us, we certainly wish the researchers sweet success.