Antibiotic Bees

Over the past few months I’ve been following a stream of daily updates about colony collapse disorder (CCD), the phenomenon in which bees abandon their hives and disappear. CCD continues to be reported throughout the U.S. and Canada — a potential disaster for food crops that require pollination.

Most of the updates I’ve seen come from newspapers that detail local incidences of CCD. And most of them read the same: a description of the overall problem followed by interviews with local beekeepers. Each of these accounts notes the various theories about what causes CCD (all speculation at this point): fungi, bacteria, pesticides, parasitic mites, weakened immune systems, and even interference from cell phone towers.

But this week I came across an entirely different CCD article. The title: “No ORGANIC Bee Losses.” This article is described as a “widely circulated email” from Sharon Labchuk, an environmental activist and part-time beekeeper. Ms. Labchuk states that she’s on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 beekeepers — mostly American — and “no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. “The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.”

Ms. Labchuk goes on to quote a message from a web site maintained by beekeeper Michael Bush. Mr. Bush explains that he has no problems with varroa mites because he uses natural sized cells. Larger commercial beekeepers tend to use larger hive foundations, which result in larger cells and larger bees than those in natural hives. Mr. Bush: “By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems.”

Ms. Labchuk’s response: “Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry.” And who should be surprised that media reports also tend to gloss over any potential connection between genetically modified (GM) crops and CCD? We’re told there’s no evidence of such a link and the subject is dropped, as if evidence would be impossible to produce. Okay — no evidence — then how about the next best thing?

In October 2000, Joe Rowland (a beekeeper and the secretary/treasurer of the Empire State Honey Producers Association) testified before the New York Assembly regarding the way GM organisms might affect honeybees. He drew his testimony from available research and his own knowledge of honeybee biology.

After noting that pollen is the honeybee’s protein source and that the gene structure of pollen is modified in GM crops, he offered this comment: “Findings indicate that none of the tested pollens kill adult bees outright, but that they may shorten their lifespan and cause some behavioral changes, particularly in a loss of their ability to learn and to smell. This may cause foraging bees to ‘forget’ where flowers or even their own hive is located.”

Note that this comment was made a full seven years before the phrase “colony collapse disorder” was coined. Those seven years may have taken a heavy toll.