An Introduction to Colony Collapse Disorder

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What is Colony Collapse Disorder

Since around 2006, a mysterious threat has affected bee populations across many parts of the world. Beekeepers started reported extremely high losses of their colonies. In some cases, the losses were staggering – 90% or more of hives were lost. What was particularly confusing was the nature of the losses. In at least 50% of these cases, there were no signs of the traditional threats. No signs of disease, no clear indication of high mite counts or any other obvious explanation.

The symptoms were confusing and remain so today.

  • The worker bee population leaves the hive
  • The queen and young brood remain
  • There are ample reserves of honey and pollen

Consider that for a second. The very things that adult bees work so hard to create and protect – honey, pollen, brood and even the queen – are left behind, with no apparent signs of traditional problems, such as mites.

What kills a colony fast?
The lack of a strong and productive worker bee population is a death sentence to any colony, which eventually dies due to an inability to sustain itself.

This combination of events and symptoms is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Potential causes

The dramatic, newsworthy nature of CCD attracted the attention of many. This included the scientific community, which continues to investigate and try to understand the cause. Over time, it has also included the press, including general media outlets. True to the soundbite-driven nature of society today, many of these news organizations use sensational language and regularly claim “breaking news” of the discovery of the cause.

Yet even today, well over a decade later, there is no single, widely-accepted cause of CCD. The nature of beekeeping, with its diverse range of participants (from individual beekeepers to huge agriculture organizations), means that consistent, level-headed consideration of CCD isn’t always easy to find.

At this stage, the jury is still out. But there are plenty of areas under investigation.

  • The impact of the varroa mite
  • The role of pesticides on gardens and crops
  • The use of treatments in hives
  • Decreasing and changing foraging options for bees
  • A decrease in immune systems, for various reasons
  • The increased use of “pollination as a utility” and the stress this mobility places on bees

This is just a partial list of possible causes. For each of these individual claims there have often been apparently valid counter-arguments.

There is no shortage of folks who claim they “know”. These claims are commonly made from personal experience or from speaking to others in their area. While such opinions and their experiences are important and should be considered, we should not be basing research on “me too” mentalities of from sample sizes that are statistically inconsequential. Too many form their opinions entirely from their own experiences.

Is CCD a threat about which we should be concerned?
The fact that many individuals and organizations have been desperate to understand CCD for so long should be a sign that this is a complex and challenging situation.

The betting money today is on the cause being a complex combination of factors. But no-one knows for sure and CCD continues to be a cause of great concern.

Good news?

There is some potentially good news. There are some indications that recent years have seen some decline in events attributed to CCD. But, as with all things related to CCD it seems, the data isn’t overwhelmingly supportive of this conclusion, at least not yet. Too many studies have been conducted without scientific rigor and the sensationalist tendencies of the press can hinder, rather than help. Regardless, it is accepted that CCD-related losses have fallen from the dramatic peaks of 2006.

Why beekeepers should think like pilots

As we move into Course  : A Healthy Beehive, we will be covering a wide range of topics representing threats to bees. It is important for the beekeeper to gather a firm awareness of these topics over time and to stay current. So we put a significant focus on these less-than-positive topics quite intentionally.

But we also understand that an emphasis on these negative issues might be alarming to the new beekeeper. To that thought, we’d propose an analogy. Like all analogies, this will break down at some point, but go with the flow please!

Attainment of a private pilot’s certificate is a fun and challenging commitment. But there is a common and frequent exposure to pilots of all levels to the potential risks. The majority of those efforts are, quite rightly, focused on “if things go bad”. This is entirely the right thing to do, but if one were to reflect on the time taken and the words written considering potentially bad events, one could conclude that many planes fall out of the sky every day!

Of course, it is precisely because of the deliberate, intentional and reasoned focus on risks that air travel today – both commercial and recreational – is as safe today as it has ever been.

OK, analogy over. We didn’t say it was perfect and the stakes are higher when it comes to air travel. But hopefully you will see the point we’re attempting to make here. An ongoing focus on risks and threats is a good, healthy thing and independent of the likelihood of problems occurring.

What should a beekeeper do?

With CCD we can’t tell you “do x and y will not happen”, because no matter what you might read….no-one knows. That challenges all of us, since uncertainty is troubling.

However, we propose two broad commitments you can make, to increase the chances of your bees doing well.

  • Learn: Make a commitment to yourself to continue to learn, from when you install your beehive. Observe, ask, question what you see, study. Over time, you may notice patterns that become familiar and for which you can take action proactively. This philosophy is the framework through which you make decisions as a beekeeper.
  • Report: A key factor in the fight against CCD – whatever it’s underlying cause – is data. On his or her own, the beekeeper down the street isn’t in a position to draw any definitive conclusions about CCD. But consider how data aggregated from across the country, from thousands of beekeepers, can be valuable and insightful. To that end, consider supporting initiatives such the Bee Informed Partnership. Complete their survey and help them drive knowledge through data.

CCD is an ongoing and significant concern and no-one would seek to minimize its importance. But, beekeeping continues to flourish and, while the risk of losses is ever-present, many beekeepers successfully see their bees survive, year-on-year.

Attention to beekeeping best practices – as we will cover in Course 3: A Healthy Beehive – and a willingness to pay attention to what bees tell us at each inspection will go a long way toward increasing your own chances of long-term success.

4 thoughts on “An Introduction to Colony Collapse Disorder”

  1. Just finished my first year and I have two broad houses twice on war days I cleaned a lot of dead bees on the bottom board in both hives is this normal

  2. I really appreciate your articles. I am perplexed however that pesticide usage is not mentioned. All sorts of environmental factors must be combined to cause CCD but even the EU which is home to chemical Industrial giants is forced to reign in the over liberal usage of such poisons.

    1. Thank you, Joseph. Yes, I agree that this is a significant topic in any discussion of CCD. While there is certainly scope for more coverage of this, there is in fact a mention of pesticides in the article (please see the bulleted list under “Potential Causes”). Thank you again for your comment, sir.

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