More and more beekeepers all over the world are witnessing a sharp drop in the number of bees they keep.
In the United States, 25 percent of honeybees vanished in 2006 and 2007, and in several European countries the situation is possibly even worse.
This phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder, not only has serious consequences on the balance of nature and the pollination of plants, but also on the economy.
French honey producer Rene Bayon explained: “We are losing a lot of bees, sometimes more than 50% of the colonies, in regions like Alsace, Isere and around Lyon. Here we are losing about 25% of these insects during the year. 15% at the end of the winter. But this is quite normal.”
A European Union research project called Bee-Doc has been looking into the problem since March. Together, 11 universities from nine different countries are working under Professor Robin Moritz, one of the world’s top experts in this field.
He told us: “The idea behind Bee-Doc is to seek three different research pillars, one aiming at diagnosis of diseases – developing new easy tools for bee disease diagnostics. The other is for developing strategies of disease prevention and the third one is trying to develop novel treatments that may rely less on the tedious chemical therapy that we have now.”
One of those lines of research is being studied at the Hohenheim University of Stuttgart. Under the guidance of Dr. Peter Rosenkranz, researchers are introducing toxins into groups of bees. They want to determine the effects of several elements combined together as Dr. Rosenkranz explains:
“First of all, we want to know what is the real effect of combinations of certain pesticides and parasites. The second thing is to see how the colony can react, can handle exposure and the possibilities either for future selection of honey bees to [produce offspring] that are better adapted to these kind of parasites and probably also environmental stress.”
A loss of biodiversity is one of the main suspected reasons for the fall in the bee population, along with excessive use of pesticides and pollution.
What researchers like Dr. Rosenkranz are saying is that several different factors may explain CCD.
“Colony collapse can have many reasons. The biggest problem at the moment is the Varoa, especially in autumn and winter, but, again, starving of the bees, mismanagement, additional pesticides, poor nutrition can also act together, can really create a situation where a honeybee colony cannot survive anymore and will collapse.”
Also in Germany, at Halle Wittenberg University, a research programme is focusing on genetics. The bees’ genetic make-up is under the microscope. Scientists want to understand which single gene is involved when a specific source of stress for the insect – be it illness, parasites or pesticide – is active.
Dr. Berhard Kraus is the coordinator of this research. He described what the team is looking to do in the future:
“The genome of the honeybees was sequenced a couple of years ago, so actually we know the entire genome, so we know the way the book is written, but we have not read it completely, and we do not know necessarily which genes are involved in a given trait. So this is something that the biologists will be busy with over the next few years and for some time to come.”
A multi-disciplinary approach is the only way to solve the problem. And in the spirit of European scientific projects, it is also a multinational approach.
“We get the knowledge and the expertise of many people from Europe which work in different fields of honeybee biology. We have people who are experts in pesticides, we have people who come from the bio-chemistry side, we have people who really work in a kind of applied field of honeybee keeping, and actually people like us who work in bee-genetics,” said Kraus.
Another branch of research is based in Avignon, France. Here Yves Le Conte’s team study a special kind of local bee, that is resistant to the affections.
Another of these branches of research is based in Avignon, France. Here Yves Le Conte’s team are studying a special kind of local bee that is resistant to infection. He told us of a local resistance to stress:
“In Avignon and in the west of France, bee populations are resisting not just parasites, but all sorts of diseases, even though they are not being treated against them. What we want to know is why they are surviving and others are not. It’s a very useful way for us to get to the genetic root of the problem.”
The project aims to help beekeepers survive CCD. It will take time to solve the problem once and for all, but the team is in it for the long haul, says Professor Moritz:
“We don’t eliminate the problem, we will give the beekeeper a tool to avoid the problem. I think this is a realistic goal that we have in the next three years. In the long run we will really be ready to eliminate the problem, which will require breeding work for resistant honeybees. I think this is the sort of the scheme we have in mind when we work in the Bee-Doc project.”
Finding a way to protect bees means working to protect natural balance. Bees are a delicate microcosm of the health of our planet: problems for them mean problems for us all somewhere down the line.
As Einstein put it: “No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”