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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT