Skip to main content

What's killing the bees

By Kim Flottum, Special to CNN
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Tue April 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than half of all the honeybees in the U.S. died almost at once this spring
  • Kim Flottum: Colony Collapse Disorder describes symptoms, but not cause
  • He says there are a number of reasons for bees' death, but stress is a major factor
  • Flottum: The food system in this country for honey bees is broken, and it needs fixing

Editor's note: Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.

(CNN) -- That honeybees die is not new. And that beekeepers accept that on average 30% or more of their livestock will vanish each spring isn't new either. But when more than half of all the honeybees in this country die almost at once -- that is new. And that's what happened this spring.

Scientists have given this disaster the catchy, all-inclusive name Colony Collapse Disorder. It describes symptoms, but not cause.

The symptoms are straightforward. When examined in early spring, one day the colony has ample adults, an acceptable queen and a healthy number of juvenile bees ready to emerge and become adults. A week later -- the adults are gone. Poof. They vanish into thin air, leaving the juveniles to emerge into a dying world.

Kim Flottum
Kim Flottum

Up to now, the disappearance of the bees has been attributed to a cluster of causes, with no single definitive culprit.

Working in concert, malnourished, unhealthy bees are subject to the physical damage of blood-sucking Varroa mites that add insult to injury by sharing a host of immune-suppressing viruses with every bee they bite. Add to this an intestine-eating bacterial disease that destroys a bee from the inside out, and you can see that the end is near.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Beekeepers have expensive controls for mites, viruses and the intestinal disease, and when appropriately applied, those can curb the worst of these problems to an acceptable level -- if the bees are healthy to begin with.

With humans, if we get too little sleep, have a poor diet, and take on too much pressure, our stress levels rise and we succumb to ailments our otherwise healthy immune system could easily handle. And we get sick.

So it is with the bees. Their world is overrun with stress.

Riding on trucks affects their ability to produce food the young need. Varroa damage shortens their lives by double-digit percentage points. And the viruses subtract more days of being a bee. Throw in the intestine-eating disease and their fragile lives grow still shorter. And don't forget the compounds that beekeepers must use to keep Varroa from overrunning a colony. They are killing a bug on a bug. Our honeybees are surrounded on all sides by the means to their own end.

But by my reckoning, it's the stress that neither the bees nor the beekeepers have control over that is a major issue.

To thrive, any organism needs to be 100% strong, and that begins with a healthy diet. Beekeepers have a saying: Enough good food in the right place at the right time and your bees will be healthy, wealthy and wise. Basically, the food system in this country for honeybees is broken, and it needs fixing.

The Plains states, the Midwest, the Mountain States -- all were once a gastronomic paradise for honeybees. Millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Land bloomed, supplying a healthy mix of blossoms to thousands of honeybee colonies.

Today, much if not most of that dietary reserve has been plowed under to make way for 100 million acres of ethanol-producing corn. This sterile desert has nothing to offer -- except perhaps a tiny bit of the thousands of tons of agricultural pesticide applied to the corn, way back at planting time, that makes its way to the pollen collected by the bees, which is stored and eaten later. That's not enough to kill a bee, but it adds another layer of stress. And, some suspect, the tipping point stress.

Florida was a suburb of that paradise, before the trees were sprayed night and day, turning whole counties into a honeybee no-trespassing zone.

Everywhere, people are covering the land. Concrete, says John Miller, a North Dakota commercial beekeeper, is the last crop. When people put concrete down for parking lots, roads or houses, nothing will ever grow there again.

Without good food there is no future for a beekeeping industry in this country. Farmers, state and federal governments all must provide safe land for bees. All of this has been said again and again by pollinator supporters for years.

Without enough good healthy food, beekeeping is destined to become a concentrated feed lot enterprise. Stress wins. Varroa wins. We all lose.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kim Flottum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT