Bee Health Issues
“We have learned more about the lesser known such as viruses, bacteria and what role they play in the life of the bee,” he said. “We knew most of the parts about how a hive operated, but with new technologies, we’ve been able to identify over 20 different viruses that are associated with bees and found some new bacteria that existed, but we didn’t know exactly what their function was in the mid-gut and causes for CCD.”
The most commonly identified parasitic pest blamed for colony collapse is the Varroa mite. Management systems and technology to try and keep the mites in check are being researched.
Saving bees even means trying to breed stronger bees with more diverse DNA. “There are a number of laboratories that are doing breeding work,” Epstein said. “There is genetic bottlenecking. We always have selected certain bees that we use for our beekeeping. And you end up with certain people doing queen production; so, you are squeezing the genetics even more.”
Today, he said, breeding researchers are looking at a lot of different genetic improvements that can assist in the bees’ health—resistance to disease, resistance to certain pests such as the Varroa mite and tracheal mite and exhibiting better hygiene. He pointed to a University of Minnesota breeder who has bred a hygienic breed of bees that specifically does a better job of cleaning the hive of any material where bacteria or fungi might become established. Perhaps one of the most unusual breeding concepts is development of a bee that would pick Varroa mites off each other.
Drought Had Impact
This year’s high die-off of bees or colony collapse shouldn’t be too unexpected. The drought across much of the upper Midwest where bees are parked in the summer resulted in a lot of weakened bee colonies. “That was a debilitating tactic in 2012,” Epstein said.
Bees fly within a five-mile radius of the hive in general to find food sources and water, and they need water to cool their hives. Because of the drought there was less forage that was palatable and much less pollen.
The states, counties and rural landowners could be doing a better job for helping keep bees healthy, especially in a drought situation like last summer. Beekeepers talk about rights of way management for utilities, highways, etc. that are sprayed for weeds and not planted with wildflowers as being a problem for bees. Additionally, they would like to see the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) involved in targeted planting of forage for bees. This isn’t for wild bees because the experts point out that less than 10 percent of the bees in the nation are feral and the rest are maintained by beekeepers.
To conclude, Epstein noted that causes of colony collapse is way too complicated to jump to conclusions about one cause, pesticides, when it’s probably a combination of causes. “Our EPA has said that the European Union is basing its studies on what EPA would consider incomplete science. They (EPA) prefer we have the full science done—tier two and tier three testing—instead of just the tier one testing.”