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You've probably heard about the sudden and mysterious drop in honey bee populations throughout the U.S.A. and Europe. Beekeepers used to report average losses in their worker bees of about 5-10% a year, but starting around 2006, that rate jumped to about 30%. Today, many large beekeeping operations are reporting that up to 40 or 50 percent of their swarms have mysteriously disappeared. This massive die-off of honey bee populations has been dubbed colony collapse disorder, and it is a big, big deal. Find out more in today's episode of SciShow.

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Honey bees and colony collapse disorder

Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health

Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms

Studies show how pesticides make bees lose their way

What Honey Bees Can Teach Us About Democracy

How Colony Collapse Disorder Works

Colony Collapse Disorder Report Blames Combination Of Problems For U.S. Honeybee Deaths

Bee deaths: EU to ban neonicotinoid pesticides

The Politics of Bees Turns Science on its Head -- Europe Bans Neonics While Local Beekeepers, Scientists Say Action is Precipitous

The Fox (Monsanto) Buys the Chicken Coop (Beeologics)
Assuming you don't live under a rock, you've probably heard about the sudden and mysterious drop in honey bee populations throughout the U.S. and Europe, and maybe even if you do live under a rock, you've noticed that there are fewer bees buzzing around your rock. Beekeepers used to report average losses, or dwindlings, in their worker bees of about 5-10% a year. But starting around 2006, that rate jumped to about 30%. And now, today, the honey has really hit the fan with many big beekeeping operations reporting that up to 40 or 50% of their swarms have mysteriously disappeared. This massive and mysterious die-off of honey bee hives has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder and it is a big, big deal.


When you hear people freaking out about how important bees are you, you might think to yourself, "Yeah, you know, like, I like honey too." But I'm here to tell you, honey is just the sticky frosting on the massive cake bees serve us every day for free. We don't just need bees, we really need bees. The US Department of Agriculture reports that honey bee population is responsible for more than $15 billion in crops each year, and that at least a third of the food you're shoveling into your mouth is a direct or indirect result of the pollinating that they do. Bees pollinate over 90 flowering crops in the U.S., including apples, citrus fruits, asparagus, and soybeans, and no crop needs bees more than almonds, which are pretty much totally dependent on them. When it's pollinating time in California, farmers truck in 1.4 million bee colonies, 60% of professional bees in the country, to almond groves, and yes, I said professional bees, there are bees who earn money for people by doing what bees do, so you can imagine the economics that are at stake here.

The way Colony Collapse Disorder goes down is reminiscent of a horror movie. A bee keeper toddles out to a colony and finds only a few, if any, adult bees in the hive, but there are no dead bee bodies, just a lonely live queen and her baby brood. Everyone else has vanished. Sometimes there's still honey, and often, the place is lousy with Varroa mites, vampirish parasites that transmit viruses. You can see how the mites might be prime suspects here, but they're probably only one factor in a combination of stressors, including habitat loss and synthetic chemicals that are joining forces to kill bees.

These days, of course, commercial crops are soaked in all manner of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Analysts have documented 150 different chemical residues in beehives, and while on an individual level, these substances may be certified as non-lethal, there have been few studies on how they may react with each other, and what consequences that might have.

Many critics believe nicotine derived pesticides, neonicotinoids, may be partially to blame. These neonics are systemic pesticides, meaning they are often embedded into the seeds of a plant rather than sprayed on externally. Older pesticides killed bees, too, of course, but they washed away or degraded quickly, whereas these neonics can persist for months, and some beekeepers worry the buildup is contaminating, weakening, and ultimately poisoning the worker bees that collect all the pollen.

A study recently published in the journal Science found that bees given small doses of neonics were 2-3 times more likely to die while away from the hive than control bees, probably because the chemical messed with their homing abilities and they couldn't find their way home. Most other research to date on the neonics indicate they are safe enough, but the sharp increase in their use since 2005 correlates with rising CCD rates so some critics are demanding more research.

In fact, a coalition of beekeepers and consumer and environmental groups is currently suing the EPA, saying they jumped the gun on approving these products, and the European Union just voted to temporarily ban the insecticide until more research can be done. Some farmers and chemical reps are mad about the ban because they feel, at least for now, the science is on their side. The very fact that the issue has become so political is a good indication of how terrified folks are of losing all the bees, because really, we are seriously screwed without them. So, if you're out picnicking this summer and you see a bee taking liberties with your slice of watermelon, for Pete's sakes, don't swat the poor girl, she's earned her taste, so be nice, we need all the bees we can get.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and for all our our bee viewers out there, I will communicate in your language: bzzzzzzzzzzz bzzzz bzzzz bzzzzz.