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Searching for the Source of Bees' Decline

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Q&A: NRDC Science Center Director Gabriela Chavarria on Colony Collapse Disorder

In 2006, OnEarth published one of the first stories highlighting a mysterious condition that was causing bees to disappear across the world. Several years later, the crisis continues -- and scientists still don't know why. Bee expert Gabriela Chavarria, who directs NRDC's Science Center and has a doctorate in evolutionary biology, talked about the latest findings and what the continuing crisis means for bees and our food supply with OnEarth. You can learn more about her work and what NRDC is doing to help bees at beesafe.org.

What are some of the threats facing bees? And why should we care?

Like any other animal on the planet, bees face habitat destruction. Natural green areas with flowering wild plants and trees, which provide a varied and nutritious diet to bees, are being destroyed. Some of these areas are paved over for urban development, while others are converted to monocultures -- large agricultural fields that grow a single type of crop, which may not provide all of the nutrients the bees would obtain from their natural habitat.

Bees are also threatened by a lack of food, pesticide use, genetically modified pollen, and climate change. These problems have left pollinators in a worldwide crisis. Without pollination, we would have no fruits, no plants, no flowers. Eighty percent of the crops we grow in this country need the services of honey bees. They affect a lot of our food, our economies, even our aesthetics. Imagine a world without flowers or fruits!

What is colony collapse disorder?

When a beekeeper opens a hive, sometimes all of the adult bees are gone, leaving behind a perfectly healthy hive. There are no dead bees around or any clues to why it's been abandoned. The bees just leave, and they never come back. It's been happening for about 10 years.

We don't really know what colony collapse disorder is. We don't have a definition for it, or know what problems may lead to it. We know that bees are disappearing -- in some areas more than others -- and that they are facing many different threats.

How has our understanding of colony collapse disorder changed over the past few years?

Perhaps the most important change is that we now believe that CCD is likely the result of a combination of factors that may be damaging the bees' immune and/or nervous systems, instead of having one single cause. This makes it far more complex to study the causes of CCD.

The basic threats to honey bee colonies remain the same: pathogens and parasites, pesticide exposure, and nutritional deficiencies. All of these may weaken the bees' immune systems, making them susceptible to other physical and neurological problems and affecting overall colony health. While the exact cause of CCD is not yet known, many scientists believe that a combination of pathogens and environmental factors may be behind the collapse of bee colonies.

Do we have a better understanding of why or how pesticides might affect honey bees?

We know more about how certain classes of pesticides affect bees' nervous systems. We know that some classes of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, affect the bees' grooming behavior, as well as their communication and navigation systems, which are necessary for getting rid of parasites, finding food, and returning to the hive. We are also more aware of the great number of pesticides that bees are exposed to and the many ways in which they are exposed. For example, a 2008 study by Penn State University scientists found 70 different pesticides in bees and pollen. There are also more studies documenting that systemic pesticides -- those that are absorbed into the plant -- make it into the pollen and nectar of flowers, which are the bees' food source.

Beekeeping is illegal in New York City. Does NRDC support beekeeping in urban areas?

We would love to see beekeeping legalized in New York City. The city already has a very healthy honey bee population -- many beekeepers maintain hives throughout the city -- but they are not yet legal.

Many large cities are very bee-friendly: San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit have all legalized honey bee hives. A successful program in Chicago uses beekeeping to help people released from prison transition to the workforce. Chicago's City Hall has several hundred beehives on the roof, which former inmates care for and maintain. For a year or so, they learn a new practice and build a new job record. Later they can apply for other jobs, showing that they've been reliable employees. It's been very successful, and the workers are welcomed into the Chicago workforce.

Do urban bees face different threats than bees in rural areas?

Urban bees face similar threats, but they encounter different forms of pollution. In agricultural settings, bees are more exposed to pesticides, but in the urban setting, they face exhaust fumes from cars and buses and acid rain from the sky. We don't really know how much smog and pesticides make it into their hives, because very little research has looked at the problem. Bees -- much like us -- are not totally safe anywhere.

What is NRDC doing to help bees and beekeepers?

We're trying to make the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accountable for the way they approve pesticides. We want to make sure that the pesticides they issue are not harmful to bees, and we want to make sure that federal agencies in charge of research, including the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, actually have the funding to hire research staff, monitor the health status of bee colonies, conduct scientific studies on the causes of bee decline, and develop methods to better protect these essential pollinators. We are involved in outreach efforts on Capitol Hill, and our litigation team is making sure the EPA follows protocols that are necessary to determine whether certain pesticides are harmful to bees.

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Crystal Gammon is an intern at OnEarth. Before moving to New York City to study science, health and environmental journalism at New York University, she received a master’s degree in earth science at the California Institute of Technology. She’s ... READ MORE >

Really good article. One thing that we can all do to help save the honey bee is to become beekeepers! By keeping bees in our gardens, rooftops or even on our balconies, we can make a real difference. And as your article says, bees in urban areas are less at risk from pesticides, and they can get more than enough nectar & pollen from parks, window boxes, community gardens, etc.
Get more information about how to start beekeeping at http://www.bestbeekeeping.com

I believe that before mankind became involved with beekeeper's boxes that bees existed on their own just fine. In my backyard are two boxes that I have noticed bees returning to, but I do think they prefer their seclusion up a tree in the wild somewhere in the shade, protected than out in the open to an enclosed wooden prison. Wouldn't you if you were a bee?

Mi querida Gaby!! yo te ando buscando por todos lados, ya solo me faltan señales de humo!! ja ja ja Ojalá veas esto.
Maribel Garzón
maribelgarzon@yahoo.com