Honeybees are going missing from their hives and no one knows why. The missing bees are presumed dead though investigators have yet to find bodies to autopsy. The phenomenon—labeled Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)—has appeared in at least 22 states and Canada, and to a lesser extent in Germany, Switzerland and India. Beekeepers have reported losses as high as 70 percent on the east coast and in Texas, and as high as 60 percent on the west coast. The U.S. beekeeping industry—and the farmers that depend on bees —are in turmoil as bees are desperately needed to pollinate fourteen billion dollars worth of crops, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts. Major media from the NY Times to the BBC have been abuzz with bad news of future food shortages and economic ramifications that will “sting.”1-7
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
As the name Colony Collapse Disorder suggests, this is not a slow die off but a rapid collapse—often occurring with no warning in just two or three weeks. As California beekeeper David Bradshaw told the NY Times, “I have never seen anything like it. Box after box after box is just empty. There’s nobody home.” What’s happening is clearly different from the 20 percent die off typically reported by beekeepers during the off season or from disease-related regional losses.8
Although the bees may be falling prey to disease, they aren’t dying in or in front of the beehives. They are either dropping dead from exhaustion in the fields or becoming disoriented and dying from exposure. What’s clear is they aren’t taking off in search of new adventures—or greener pastures; bees are hardwired with strong social ties to their queen bee and offspring.
What’s To Blame?
Pathogens, pesticides, signals from cell phone towers, GM (genetically modified) crops, MSG in plant-growth promoters (see sidebar, page 49)—and combinations of these factors—have all been blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder. But the evidence is inconclusive at best. Pathogens and pesticides have long been implicated in the world’s declining bee population, which has dropped in half since 1971.9 The Varroa destructor mite, an import from Asia, feeds like a tick and is a known bee killer. Accused—but never proven guilty—of causing the “Vampire Mite Scare” of winter 2004-2005, the mite is blamed for weakening the bees but not killing them off in Colony Collapse Disorder.10,11
The aggressive insecticide usage of commercial agriculture has also led to weakened bees. Poisoning is one problem; acres of monocrops coupled with destroyed native vegetation is another. Without the opportunity to forage for a rich variety of nectars, bees cannot stay healthy and strong.12 The question is whether insecticides are triggering the sudden, catastrophic losses of Colony Collapse Disorder.
Many insecticides kill with neurotoxins which at low doses could impair the bees’ ability to navigate home to their hives. A likely suspect is the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, which has been banned in many European countries but which is widely used in the US. This type of pesticide is applied to the soil and taken up into the plant’s tissues, including pollen and nectar. Imidacloprid can cause symptoms in keeping with CCD. Termites, for example, have suffered immune system breakdowns and disorientation. The problem is proving it. Today’s bees are transported from one crop to another and exposed to so many different insecticides that it’s nearly impossible to establish cause and effect.13,14
Signals from cell phone towers may also be throwing off the bees’ navigation systems. This theory has led to lots of buzz about whether cell phones are wiping out our bees. However, investigators have not found increased bee disappearances near the towers.15,16
Perhaps it’s the GM crops. The Sierra Club’s Genetic Engineering Committee sent a letter to Senator Thomas Harkin expressing serious concerns about the bees’ “exposure to genetically engineered crops and their plant-produced pesticides.”17
German researchers have shown that exposure to corn pollen containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes may weaken the adult bees’ defense against infectious agents such as Nosema. Add in the fact that the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group found weakened bees harboring Nosema infections and it’s no wonder people are pointing the finger at GM crops. However, the group found the high levels only in samples of bees from Pennsylvania, not everywhere else. Furthermore, CCD has occurred in areas where no GM crops have been planted.18
Speaking to a reporter for the German publication Der Spiegel, Walter Haefeker of the German Beekeepers Association said: “Besides a number of other factors, the fact that GM insect-resistant plants are now used in 40 percent of cornfields in the US could be playing a role. A research project conducted at the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004 examined the effects of pollen from a maize variant called Bt corn on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there was no evidence of a toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations. But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study a significantly stronger decline in the number of bees’ occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.”19
Hans Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle and the director of the Jena study, explained that the bacterial toxin in the GM corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry—or perhaps it was the other way around. We don’t know.” Der Spiegel reported that Kaatz would like to continue his study, but lacks necessary funding. “Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research and those who are interested don’t have the money,” he said.20
No Type B Bees
What else might be triggering CCD? Stress and weakened immune systems. The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group—a group of researchers, extension agents and regulatory officials that have teamed up to investigate—found that colonies experienced “extraordinary stress” prior to the collapse and this was the only factor present in all cases. Pesticides, GM crops, cell phone towers, etc. are all sources of stress, and the Working Group also pointed to frequent moving of colonies, poor nutrition (from pollinating commercial crops with little nutritional value) and drought.21
Investigators have found so many infectious agents in surviving adult bees that many have diagnosed “immunosuppression” from an unknown toxic agent. Because this could make bees more susceptible to what ultimately kills them off, Dennis Van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the Working Group, warned that it “could be the AIDS of the bee industry.” Autopsies of surviving bees revealed extensive viral and fungal coinfections. Commercial bees could also be suffering immune system depression because of routine and heavy antibiotic and miticide use.22,23
In bees, as in humans, diet would play a key role in immunosuppression. Bees transported from one commercial monocrop to another lack access to nourishing nectar and pollen from wild flowers and other natural vegetation. To keep them alive, active and profitable, beekeepers feed commercial bee feeds made primarily out of two ingredients—sugar (usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup) and soy protein. The sugar is used to “stimulate” breeding, pollen collection and “improve the morale of the colonies generally.”24,25 But if sugar affects bees the way it does humans, the initial “sugar high” leads to a low characterized by anxiety and “brain fog.” No wonder so many bees are sick and disoriented!
Sugar is a notorious health destroyer that adversely affects every system in the body, including the immune system. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is even worse.
Soy protein—and its estrogenic isoflavones—could also weaken the bees’ immune systems and harm their brains. In mammals, soy has been shown to damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. In the insect brain, mushroom bodies serve similarly and might also be adversely affected by soy.26-28
Animal studies have linked increased phytoestrogen levels to decreased brain calcium-binding protein (needed for protection against neurodegenerative disease) and decreased brain neurotrophic factor (essential for the survival and genesis of brain cells).29,30 Clearly it’s time for some studies on sugar, soy and bee brains and bee health. Many of the bee feeds use soy flour, a low-tech product that is nonetheless high in phytoestrogens. Bee feeds made with textured vegetable protein or other modern soy products are not only high in phytoestrogens but excitotoxins and other neurotoxic residues that are byproducts of fast and cheap modern processing methods.31
Common sense tells us that bees malnourished on sugar and soy have a poor chance of fighting predators such as mites. Likewise, they are ill-equipped to survive poisoning from insecticides whether these are applied to soil or plants or incorporated into the very fabric of GM crops. What’s more, the corn syrup and soy protein ingredients found in these new bee feeds are both likely to come from GM crops, throwing GM toxins, antinutrients and residues into the brew. Unfortunately, the soy-sugar feeding theory is open to challenge—at least as the primary cause of DDC. The Working Group’s investigators claimed that some beekeepers fed their bees, but not all.32
Years ago, Albert Einstein warned: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Emperor’s New Robes
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has come up with an exciting new way to manufacture tasty low-carb munchies. The patented new method involves blending soy protein with wheat gluten. This mixture can then be forced through an extruder—just like Styrofoam peanuts and plastic toys—and dried to produce products such as crisps, cereal pieces, cookies and snack bars, which are known in the food product business as “enrobed convenience snacks.” Vitamins can be added to “create a more functional snackfood” and, lest it get too nutritious, sweeteners and binding agents can also be mixed in. Catering to the needs of people who wish to go both low-carb and low-fat, the mixture will offer at least 70 percent of calories as protein with a carbohydrate content of less than five percent. Containing both soy and wheat gluten, the new product will be especially unhelpful to people with allergies and celiac disease, both of which are now epidemic in this country. Soy and wheat are among the top eight allergens, and gluten should be strictly avoided by people suffering from celiac disease.
Soy Wimps Out
A study from Canada’s McMaster University shows that milk protein is significantly better than soy at building muscle mass. Researchers compared the muscle gains of young men after completing heavy-weight lifting workouts followed by consumption of equivalent amounts of protein in the form of either skim milk or a soy beverage. “We were really impressed by how much greater the gains in muscle protein with milk were,” says lead researcher Sarah Wilkinson. Seems the milk drinkers gained almost twice as much muscle as the soy boys. Curiously, the researchers are scratching their heads about why the milk worked out better. Could it be that milk is a higher quality protein, if rated using the traditional PER rating system? Or how about the fact that milk doesn’t contain testosterone-reducing phytoestrogens? Testosterone, after all, is the reason that men bulk up more than women. It would be interesting to repeat these experiments to test the muscle-building effects of raw milk compared to skim milk and soy beverage.
- Barrioneuva, Alexei. Honeybees, Gone With the Wind, Leave Crops and Keepers in Peril, New York Times, February 27, 2007: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10B1FF8355A0C748EDDAB0894DF40448
- Bee Vanishing Act Baffles Keepers, BBC News, Feb 27, 2007.
- The Case of the Vanishing Bees, CBS Evening News, Feb 13, 2007.
- Colony Collapse Disorder, Wikipedia. April 18, 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_Collapse_Disorder
- Armas, Genaro. Mysterious Ailment Killing Off Honeybees. Feb 14, 2007. Fox News. www.foxnews.com
- Across the U.S., Keepers Say Their Bees Are AWOL. Talk of the Nation, March 9, 2007 National Public Radio, March 9, 2007. www.npr.org.
- Bee sickness investigated in California. February 14, 2007. USA Today. www.usatoday.com
- Bee Vanishing Act Baffles Keepers, BBC News, February 27, 2007.
- Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group. Preliminary Report. http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/pressreleases/FallDwindleUpdate0107.pdf
- Bee mites suppress bee immunity, open door for viruses and bacteria. May 18, 2005. (Adapted from a press release from Penn State) www.sciencedaily.com
- Levy, Sharon. The Vanishing. OnEarth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Summer, 2006.
- Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.
- Winter, Michael. Are Cell Phones killing off honey bee?. USA Today, April 16, 2007. www.usatoday.com
- Lean, Geoffrey and Harriet Shawcross. Are mobile phones wiping out our bees? Independent, April 15, 2007. http://independent.co.uk
- Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee. Laurel Hopwood, Chair. Letter to Senator Thomas Harkin. Published in GE and bee Colony Collapse Disorder – science needed! Environmental Update, Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org/biotech/whatsnew/whatsnew_2007-03-21.asp. This letter is referenced with 11 journal citations.
- Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.
- Latsch, Gunther. Collapsing Colonies: Are GM Crops Killing Bees? March 22, 2007. Spiegel Online http: www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,473166.00.html.
- Colony Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.
- Bee mites suppress bee immunity, open door for viruses and bacteria. May 18, 2005. (Story adapted from a press release from Penn State) www.sciencedaily.com
- Stevens, Charlie. Your bees are what you feed them. www.honeybee.com.au.
- Farris, SM, Robinson GE et al. Larval and pupal development of the mushroom bodies in the honey bee, Apis mellifera. J Comp Neurol, 414 , 97-113.
- O’Dell TJ, Kandel EB, Grant SG. Long-term potentiation in the hippocampus is blocked by tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Nature, 1991, 353, 6344, 558-560.
- Yakisch JS, Siden A et al. Early effects of protein kinase modulators on DNA synthesis in rat cerebral cortex. Exp Neurol, 1999, 159, 1, 164-176.
- Lephart ED et al. Phytoestrogens decrease brain calcium-binding proteins but do not alter hypothalamic androgen metabolizing enzymes in adult male rats. Brain Res, 2000, 17, 859, 1, 123-131.
- File SE, Hartley DE et al. Soya phytoestrogens changes cortical and hippocampal expressions of BDNE mRNA in male rats. Neurosci Lett, 2003, 338, 2, 135-138.
- Daniel, KT. The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food (New Trends, 2005) 128.
- Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2007.