Bees are wild animals. There are no domesticated bees, there are no pet bees.Bees do not depend on us! Our existence however depends on bees!Bees can live without us, in their natural environment, without the damaging impact associated with human civilisation.Over the past century human actions have created issues for our bees they would otherwise not have.We cannot turn back the time and reverse our mistakes! We should have the intelligence to learn from mistakes though! Hopefully, and not too late, we might eventually make the right decisions, guided by insight and our wisdom rather than by productivity and profit maximisation! Meanwhile we all can help our bees to master the challenges of the existing modern world and the problems we have created for them.The issues bees are facing can be grouped into different categories:
- Common Bee Diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses
- Pests and Parasites
- Stress related issues
- Modern Farming - Monoculture, Malnutrition
- Issues created by Human Civilisation
- The use of Insecticides
- Compounding effect of some or all of the above issuesHoneybee colonies managed by beekeepers are constantly monitored for colony strength, pests, parasites and diseases as a fundamental part of successful beekeeping. This is part of the reason we are aware of the bees' issues and their challenges.Remaining "under the radar" is the fact that also feral bee colonies in the wild, including Australian Native Bees, are facing the same issues. When some of these colonies vanish, it usually happens silently - unnoticed.Some of the issues have been caused by activities associated with beekeeping and one might argue bees would be better off when left alone and not kept and managed by beekeepers. However, without the ongoing attention to bees and their issues by beekeepers, bees might have already vanished, silently and unnoticed.
Common Bee Diseases
Some of the challenges bees are facing are common health threats caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses.Whilst these health threats do exist almost everywhere around us, it is only when a bee colony is under stress and their immune system weakens that it can cause an outbreak of a disease. A strong, stress-free and vigorous bee colony does not easily get affected.Some of these diseases affect the adult bee population, Bee Diseases - whilst other diseases affect the brood, Bee Brood Diseases.
Pests and Parasites
Some of the challenges bees are facing are pests and parasites.Virtually every beehive in the field has the potential to provide shelter to a number of small creatures. Most of these uninvited visitors are a nuisance and don't pose a serious threat to the bees. However, some can destroy the entire bee colony and cause damage to the beehive. Constant monitoring for colony strength, pests, parasites and diseases is a vital element of successful beekeeping.Some of these pests and parasites are:Uninvited Visitors like ants, slaters and spiders.Wax moths, more precisely the wax moth larvae, can destroy an entire bee colony and cause severe damage to the wooden beehive material.Small Hive Beetle (SHB) In Australia the Small Hive Beetle was first discovered in 2002 in the Sydney and Brisbane area, allegedly introduced from South Africa by returning Australian Army vehicles contaminated with the beetle. The SHB have spread since then and have meanwhile reached the Melbourne region. Beekeepers relocating their hives over hundreds of kilometres and returning them at a later stage have accelerated the spreading of the SHB.The Varroa Mite, coexisting with the Asian honeybee, was introduced from Asia in the 1970's by bee traders and has since then been one of the biggest threat to European honeybees worldwide. Whilst the Asian honeybee is resistant to the Varroa mite, the European honeybee is getting severely damaged by it. To date Australia is the only country in the world free of the varroa destructor mite, the mite that destroys European Honeybee colonies. In July 2016 varroa jacobsoni mites have been detected in an Asian Honeybee nest discovered in Townsville and it is likely to be only a matter of time that we will get varroa destructor as well.
Some of the issues bees are facing are stress related.Whenever bees are exposed to stressful situations or conditions it does affect their wellbeing and health. Health issues are causing stress and when conditions do not improve the bee colony is on a downward spiral to extinction. A multitude of issues can increase the stress level, some of them created by nature, most of the created by human action. Here some examples:Rapidly changing weatherDuring some spring seasons the weather offers one, two or three days of warm weather with good foraging conditions, followed by a sudden temperature drop to 6-12°C with rain and strong winds for two weeks or more. This brings a sudden end to the replenishment of nectar and pollen. Some new starter bee colonies simply run out of food, causing a high stress level for the bees. In some cases new brood cannot be kept at 35°C and simply chills to death, in other cases the under-tempered brood gets infected by a fungus causing Chalkbrood disease. In extreme cases the entire colony simply starves and freezes to death. This has been happening to unmanaged feral new starter colonies, as well as to hives managed by beekeepers who did not feed sugar syrup early enough as an emergency measure.Beekeepers opening the Hives to oftenWhilst opening the hive helps the beekeeper to relax from the stress of daily modern life, it has the opposite effect on the bees. An intrusion into the bees’ home increases their stress level and every time the hive is closed again they need hours, or sometimes days to recover. This does not help the bees’ health and productivity. Imagine someone would come to your house and search it through, emptying wardrobes, drawers, shelfs etc., take some of your belongings away and then leave and let you clean up the mess they left behind. Once you have settled in again and everything is back to normal they come again for a new search, week after week – one can only imagine that this increases everyone’s stress level. So, how often should you open the hive? Answer: Only when necessary!
Monoculture Farming - Bee Farming
Another cause of the problems currently affecting honeybees is our monoculture approach to agriculture where crops of the same kind are grown in large, concentrated areas. If the only source of food the bees can get is from the one crop grown in an area, it can lead to malnutrition. One might argue that the pollination period is only for a short time, between three and six weeks, and during that time bees have also access to the pollen already stored in their hive. This argument weakens though when beehives are moved from one farming region to the next to pollinate large areas of monoculture crop at a time. The Almond farms in the Robinvale area (Victoria) required 60,000 beehives for pollination in August 2008. To meet demand, beehives need to be transported on trucks over long distance, up to 1,000 km.Bee FarmingGrowing crops in large, concentrated areas has in some countries lead to new and probably inappropriate beekeeping methods, i.e. bee farming, where hundreds or thousands of beehives are kept and managed with an industrial approach to service the pollination demand. Bee Farmers with 2,000 or 5,000 hives cannot provide the same attention, love and care for their bees than beekeepers with only two, eight or twenty hives. One can only suspect that it causes stress for the bees when they are handled as a commodity rather than living creatures. One might also argue that with bee farming the focus for the beekeeper shifts towards "what is efficient for the operation" as opposed to "what is best for the bees".
Honeybees feed on pollen and honey. They collect pollen and nectar from flowering plants as long as available, and what is not consumed during this time gets stored in their nest in comb cells until all their storage space is filled. When conditions are good they extend their nest for more storage space, if possible, by building new comb. Bees use the stored surplus during times when there is not enough nectar and pollen to collect, i.e. during winter, on cold or wet days or during a drought and even during summer with normal weather conditions when there is insufficient nectar and pollen to collect. Once a bee colony has established a substantial food store and is left alone it would rarely run out of food. When beekeepers rob bees of their "surplus honey" before winter, the remaining storage might not last them through the winter. Feral bee colonies with insufficient food stores at the end of season will not survive the winter and disappear quietly and unnoticed - nature is not always kind.Starvation caused by cold weatherDuring spring, when foraging conditions are good, bee colonies multiply by swarming. The colony splits in two, about half the bee population and the queen leaves the nest as a swarm to look for a new nesting site. When a suitable home is found the colony starts building their nest, sheets of comb. The only food each worker bee carries with her when they swarm is a tiny droplet of honey in her honey sack which is used up within a few days and when weather conditions allow foraging new nectar and pollen is collected by some of the worker bees to build up the food stores in those new combs. After a short time the queen starts laying eggs in those freshly built comb cells and the nurse bees start raising new brood. The new life cycle got started and usually continues under good foraging conditions; more sheets of comb being built, more honey and pollen stored and more brood raised. Sometimes in spring 2-3 days of warm weather with good foraging conditions are followed by two weeks or more of cold, wet and windy weather, bringing a sudden end to the replenishment of nectar and pollen. Some new starter bee colonies simply need more food than they could collect and store in those 2-3 warm days. In some extreme cases, if left unattended, the entire colony simply starves and freezes to death - nature is not always kind.
Some of the issues bees are facing are caused by Human Civilisation and our interaction with nature.Decline of Natural HabitatAs the human population is growing, natural habitats of other species are declining. The natural nesting site for a colony of European Honeybees is a sheltered, darkened enclosure, like a tree hollow or other cavities found in nature. As these natural habitats are gradually disappearing bees seek shelter in residential areas as well. When bees settle in house walls, letter boxes, meter boxes, compost bins, chimneys etc. it often clashes with the existing residents and as a result the bees get removed, often destroyed.Decline in the number of BeekeepersIn areas highly populated by humans the existance of feral bee colonies is often not tolerated. Nevertheless, bees are required for the pollination of our food produce in those areas or nearby. Beekeepers, providing bees for pollination where and when needed can meet this demand by relocating beehives to the pollination areas and remove them again when the job is done.Not only the number of bees is declining, the number of beekeepers is on the decline as well. Less beekeepers means less support for our threatened bees and that there might not be sufficient numbers of bees nearby where crop is grown. It also means, in order to fill the demand for pollination, the existing beekeepers providing this service have to increase their number of beehives, leading to bee farming.It is a far better approach and closer to nature to have 1,000 beekeepers with two hives each, rather than one beekeeper with 2,000 hives.
Some of the issues bees are facing are caused by the use of chemicals, in particular insecticides or pesticides.Insecticides have been developed to kill insects!Bees are insects. It should not come as a surprise that bees get killed by insecticides. How effective can an insecticide be, claiming to be "safe for bees" - safe for insects? - a contradiction in itself !A question that remains unanswered is: What effects do insecticides have on other life forms?The use of insecticides in agriculture, particularly required for monoculture farming, is an attempt to reduce the damage to crop by insects. But by killing those "crop damaging" insects we also eradicate a great variety of other insects, among them our bees which are vital for crop pollination.When placing beehives in or near an orchard or argricultural farms there is a fairly high risk that the bees get exposed to insecticides used during that time, or to plants that have been treated prior with seed treatment products. If not in the same orchard or farm, insecticides might have been used in one of the neighbouring orchards or farms - bees don't stop at the fence!With the ongoing development of new toxic chemicals, more powerful products are released on the market to "do their job", the threat to bees is always present - and the list of these products is getting longer every year.Insects, including bees, are getting killed by some of the most powerful "weapons of mass destruction", neonicotinoids - simply by walking on the plant that has been treated with such a chemical, e.g. Clothianidin or Imidacloprid.First steps have been made in Europe to ban these products.After neonicotinoids were banned in Italy the cases of CCD reduced dramatically.In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority stated that neonicotinoids including clothianidin pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, concluding, "A high acute risk to honey bees was identified from exposure via dust drift for the seed treatment uses in maize, oilseed rape and cereals. A high acute risk was also identified from exposure via residues in nectar and/or pollen." Neonicotinoids have been banned in Europe in April 2013, for a trial period of two years. moreNeonicotinoids are still being used in Australia - for how much longer? But is there an alternative?more information on Pesticide toxicity to bees
The Compounding Effect
The multitude of issues bees are facing are compounding to a new and complex challenge.The compounding effect of several causesSeveral causes do often compound to a complex new challenge, hence it is sometimes difficult to find the root of the problem. Such a new complex challenge, gaining publicity in the media since 2006, is a syndrome commonly described as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has had a devastating impact on bee numbers all around the world.Research indicates that the immune system of the bees gets weakened and they become volnerable to fungi, bacteria, viruses and parasites. Bees seem to loose their orientation and don't return to their hive; within a few days the beehive is rendered bee-empty.The causes of this syndrome are not yet fully understood; proposed causes include environmental change-related stress, malnutrition, pesticides, inappropriate beekeeping methods, genetically modified (GM) crops, etc.The latest research indicates that the major culprit for CCD is the common use of agricultural pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids.