‘Bee Disease’ Mystifies Epidemiology Sleuths

Growing up in the UK at the height of the BSE crisis in the early 80’s, I have some experience of the economic impact that poor animal health can have on our global society.  More recently many of us were deluged with news stories on the outbreak of another disease, bird flu, that troubled much of east Asia.  In fact since December 2003 numerous cases of one particular strain of bird flu, called H5N1, have also been reported amongst birds in Africa and Europe (1,2). Fears that H5N1 could have larger repercussions have lead to drastic measures including an import ban of birds from any of the H5N1-affected countries (1). Such fears appear to be well founded. After all, there have been 411 confirmed cases and 256 deaths in humans to-date as a result of the H5N1 outbreak (3).Are we placing too many demands on bees?

Less extensively documented in the media is the rise of a more mysterious disease, also over the last five years, that today is being blamed for “an alarming die off” of honey bees in the United States (4). Known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the disease is believed to have already destroyed around two million bee colonies (5).

Are we placing too many demands on bees?

But most confounding of all is the observation that CCD leaves no remnants of death. In fact commercial bee keepers report finding nothing but empty hives (5). Like the men on board the Mary Celeste, bees appear to have simply ‘abandoned ship’.

Two years ago Maryann Frazier from Penn State Agricultural College painted the following rather grim picture of the impending catastrophe for bee-related industries:

“[CCD] has become a highly significant yet poorly understood problem that threatens the pollination industry and the production of commercial honey in the United States….Because the number of managed honey bee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago, states such as Pennsylvania can ill afford these heavy losses.” (4)

Personal experiences corroborate such an assessment. So-called ‘blossom chasers’ including Florida’s Gary Ranker periodically move their bees from one crop to the next, relying heavily on pollination to grow their melons, cucumbers and squash (6). Ranker reports being down about 250 hives, roughly one quarter of his optimal number, due to CCD (6). Others such as California’s Joe Trayner, who’s bee-pollinating business is critical for California’s huge almond exports, face the “specter of a potential pollination crisis” every time bee keepers call to report of yet more collapsed hives (7),

Today, the pathogenesis of CCD remains uncharacterized (5). While historically bees have been afflicted by various ailments, the origin of CCD is shrouded in mystery. Indeed possible suspects include everything from mites to genetically modified crops, pesticides and cell phone radiation (4,6,7,8).  University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak puts her blame firmly on the increased stress associated with industrial beekeeping:

“We’re placing so many demands on bees we’re forgetting that they’re a living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle and they’re going to have down times…………..We want them to be strong and healthy all the time, and we’re transporting them like they were a machine.” (7)

More recently scientists such as Australian entomologist Dennis Anderson have begun questioning whether CCD is real.  Anderson is concerned that attempts to name a single disease that groups potentially disparate behavioral phenomena amongst bees may in the long run pull resources away from more pressing research concerns (5).

Whatever this particular debate’s final outcome, there is no denying that CCD has stumped epidemiology sleuths worldwide. As for the almond growers, CCD has become the proverbial ‘tough nut’ that must be cracked if they are to quash one of the greatest threats to their high-demand industry.

Literature Cited

  1. The Center For Disease Control
  2. Grooms, K. (2007) Bird Flu: The Next Pandemic, eNotes  
  3. World Health Organization data
  4. See http://aginfo.psu.edu/news/2007/1/HoneyBees.htm
  5. McGrath, M. (2009) ‘No Proof’ Of Bee Killer Theory, BBC News, Thursday 5 March, 2009
  6. Hutchinson, B. (2007) Beekeeper’s life about ‘chasing the blooms’
  7. Agnew, S. (2007) The Almond and the Bee, San Francisco Chronicle
  8. Arduengo, M. (2007) A Stinging Issue: Declining Pollinator Populations, eNotes
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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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