May 11th, 2012
03:41 PM ET

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Bees

Editor's note: Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D. is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Best Bees Company™ . Best Bees™ delivers, installs, and manages honey bee hives to residents of eastern Massachusetts. 100% of their profits go to fund their research to improve honey bee health through their Apivax™ line of products. Their motto is, “Together, we can save the world, one honey bee at a time.” 

By Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D., Special to CNN

To all of the readers who don’t think that honey bees are one of the most important concerns of our modern times, let me admit that I know where you’re coming from. I wasn’t the sort of kid who played in the dirt. I was terrified of insects (ew! bugs!), and never forgot my first run-in with a bee that stung me on my sacred pillow as a toddler. But if you eat food and if you enjoy flowers, then you need to pay attention to this.

Honey bees are of vital importance, and their declining populations are an incredibly critical issue. As pollinators, they are responsible for over 130 different fruit and vegetable crops that we eat. As an economic commodity, the cost of some of these crops has already increased because the numbers of honey bees has gone down. This basic supply and demand tilt has already impacted the over $15 billion dollar industry.
Historical context

Honey bees are dying. This is a global phenomenon and a worldwide problem affecting food availability. Like climate change, the decline of honey bees is not unprecedented. There were great die offs of honey bees reported as early as the year 950 A.D. in Ireland, called the “Great Mortality of Bees”. This repeated in Ireland is 992 and 1443. The great die-off crossed the pond in 1903 when 2,000 colonies died in Cache Valley, Utah. Three years later, 100% of hives died on the Isle of Wight, UK. And then, in 1996 and again in 2006, Pennsylvania beekeepers reported alarming numbers of honey bee die offs. These die-offs are continuing today, but under the auspice of a new name, Colony Collapse Disorder.

Researchers still don’t know why honey bees are disappearing. The strangest part of this story is the lack of dead bodies, vanishing into thin air. They’re simply gone. Some of the world’s best researchers, from the USDA to the European Union, are working diligently to solve this mystery. But as any stellar sleuth knows, a mystery is always harder to solve without a body.

What is killing honey bees?

I earned my Ph.D. in biology last year from Tufts University, with a focus on honey bee health. Whenever I give talks about my research and the ongoing crisis with honey bees, I like to open the floor up to hear new ideas from audience members. Responses tend to range from the less likely (cell phones and aliens) to the more likely (pesticides, diseases, and habitat loss).

The most recent onset of Colony Collapse Disorder was followed immediately by a thorough collection of scientific publications investigating the disease hypothesis. Potentially important findings focused on viral (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus and an insect iridovirus) and fungal (Nosema) infections. The trouble was that some healthy hives were also infected.

The explanation for what is killing our honey bees is likely more complex. Researchers and beekeepers are now focusing our attention to pesticides, specifically those in a particular class called the neonicotinoids. Frustratingly, the long-term effects of pesticides can remain elusive for many years to come.

What can we do?

I began working with honey bees when I started graduate school in 2005. All it took for me to embrace dirt and insects was one inspiring teacher and mentor – Rebeca Rosengaus at Northeastern University. Dr. Rosengaus encouraged me to attend conferences to learn and to present my own research, and I share that same advice to you. Become a beekeeper or host a beehive. Sponsor honey bee research. Plant bee-friendly flowers. At a minimum, encourage yourself to recognize honey bees as so much more than icky bugs, but vitally important creatures who provide us with food and flowers. Value honey bees.

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Filed under: Environment • Innovation • The Next List • Video
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  3. jimmy

    Bees are dying and its a big problem because they pollinate our crops and flowers and they give us our honey so we need to fix this problem.

    May 14, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
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    "As pollinators, they are responsible for over 130 different fruit and vegetable crops that we eat. As an economic commodity, the cost of some of these crops has already increased because the numbers of honey bees has gone down."

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    Wow, As pollinators, they are responsible for over 130 different fruit and vegetable crops that we eat. I did not know this.
    CNN Interesting read, however i have no motivation to become a Bee Keeper, Ill probably end up getting stung to death.

    December 16, 2013 at 10:35 am | Reply
  7. Abbie Burgess

    Bees are dying because of phones and any other messaging equipment. Bees are sensitive, the waves made by the messaging thing will confuse them which eventually they will die. I have noticed pollinating bees just dropping out of the sky, one was on our tramp pooing out its innards. That is heart breaking. People we need to help them, for Mother Earth, for our future home. My kids deserve to see them.

    June 27, 2013 at 3:04 am | Reply
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  9. Rod Lousteau

    I'm not a scientist, just an interested observer with a piece of concrete evidence that contradicts many of the assertions about honey bees disappearing. There are some areas of the country where bees are thriving to the extent that they are a nuisance. Baton Rouge, LA is one such area. Our old family house is there, and we have long been plagued with bees making nests inside the walls. Two years ago, we had a bee man remove a hive. I asked him about honey bees disappearing. He laughed and told me that, working part-time, he had done over 200 bee jobs the previous year. He also knew others who were full-time in the business and had done many times more jobs than he had. So there you are. If honey bees are disappearing, they must be going to Baton Rouge. All this raises lots of questions. Why does Baton Rouge have such an excess of bees? Is this true of the entire deep south? Are southern bees hardier than bees from other areas? Or is the honey bee disappearance furor just a whole lot of baloney?

    Rod

    June 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
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  12. JP

    The problem is Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta , Dow chemicals do I need to keep going? Millions of acres of neonicotinoid treated maize and soy plants, Streams contaminated with atrazine and roundup. Wake up and quit pretending!

    February 28, 2013 at 5:17 am | Reply
  13. D. Davis

    If we want to see an increase in bee population. We need to stop selling Sevin dust in all of our garden centers across the country. This is a major cause of bee population death. Next to environment causes. People have been using sevin dust for decades on all of the flowers to protect the from other insects, Bee that land on them take them back to the hive. and to directly kill bee's and hornets and wasps.

    January 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  14. jolene

    There is a HUGE difference between DYING and DISAPPEARING. They can do one or the other not both simultaneously. Therefore i am asking you, Are they dead all around the bee hives and the ground? Or are they "missing" If they are DEAD then that means there is something KILLING them. If they are GONE the must be somewhere. Just because they are no longer in the hive does not mean they are dead. I remember when "escaped" bee's would attach randomly to tree's on our area (butte county ca) We had to call 3 times one summer to cut bees that had amassed on a tree in our side yard.

    January 17, 2013 at 3:49 am | Reply
  15. Robert Keller

    Simple. We need Monsanto to provide a genetically modified bee that is insensitive to neonicotinoids and then we can pay them to rent their bees to pollinate the GMO crops that we also pay them for.

    January 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Reply
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