It's Official: The HoneyBees are Gone [Congressional Testimony]

by Janet Ritz

Experts are gathering outside Washington, D.C. today for a two-day meeting to collectively scratch their heads about the Colony Collapse Disorder, aka 'Where have all the honeybees gone.'

The phenomenon was first noticed late last year in the United States, where honeybees are used to pollinate $15 billion worth of fruits, nuts and other crops annually. Disappearing bees have also been reported in Europe and Brazil.

Commercial beekeepers would set their bees near a crop field as usual and come back in two or three weeks to find the hives bereft of foraging worker bees, with only the queen and the immature insects remaining. Whatever worker bees survived were often too weak to perform their tasks.

There's been much speculation about this lately. Others have written extensively on their ideas as to the cause. I don't know the cause, so I thought I'd write an article that addresses what we do know, what questions are being asked, what is being done, and what has been reported, so far, in Congressional testimony.

The scientists and researchers meeting in Washington today have formed working groups from several universities, government agencies and research facilities. Here's an interesting quote from one of the team members, Rick Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, about what they're saying is NOT causing the disorder:

If the bees were dying of pesticide poisoning or freezing, their bodies would be expected to lie around the hive. And if they were absconding because of some threat -- which they have been known to do -- they wouldn't leave without the queen.

But they are leaving without the queen, which is incredible, given their societal structure (God save the queen could be their motto):

Colonies are established not by solitary queens, as in most bees, but by groups known as "swarms" which consist of a mated queen and a large contingent of workers. This group moves en masse to a nest site that has been scouted by workers beforehand, and once they arrive they immediately construct a new comb and begin to raise a new worker brood


They're not swarming anymore, according to Rick Pettis, who says that one-third of the U.S. diet depends on the honeybee:

"They're the heavy lifters of agriculture," Pettis said of honeybees. "And the reason they are is they're so mobile and we can rear them in large numbers and move them to a crop when it's blooming."

Honeybees are used to pollinate some of the tastiest parts of the American diet, Pettis said, including cherries, blueberries, apples, almonds, asparagus and macadamia nuts.

"It's not the staples," he said. "If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that's what it would be like" without honeybee pollination.

Wait a minute. I like cherries. I get my anti-oxidants from blueberries. An apple a day keeps my doctor away. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable and Almond milk is my substitute for that cow stuff.

So, what's being done about it?

On March 26, 2007, the Congressional Research Service compiled a report for Congress entitled:

Recent Honey Bee Colony Declines

Honey bee colony losses are not uncommon. However, current losses seem to differ from past situations in that

  • colony losses are occurring mostly because bees are failing to return to the hive (which is largely uncharacteristic of bee behavior),
  • bee colony losses have been rapid,
  • colony losses are occurring in large numbers, and
  • the reason why these losses are occurring remains still largely unknown.

To date, the potential causes of CCD, as reported by the scientists who are researching this phenomenon, include but may not be limited to

  • parasites, mites, and disease loads in the bees and brood;
  • known/unknown pathogens;
  • poor nutrition among adult bees;
  • level of stress in adult bees (e.g., transportation and confinement of bees, or other environmental or biological stressors);
  • chemical residue/contamination in the wax, food stores and/or bees;
  • lack of genetic diversity and lineage of bees; and
  • a combination of several factors

On March 29th, Diana Cox-Foster, Professor Department of Entomology, Pennsylvania State University, testified before the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture:

Honey bees are essential for the pollination of over 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide. The economic worth of the honey bee is valued at more than $14.6 billion in the U.S. In Pennsylvania alone, honey bees and pollination are worth $65 million annually through fruit crops, forage, and bee products (most notably honey). In addition to agricultural crops, honey bees also pollinate many native plants in the ecosystem.


In colonies experiencing CCD [Colony Collapse Disorder], we have found that individual bees are infected with an extremely high number of different disease organisms. However, we have found little evidence of parasitization by varroa or tracheal mites. Many of these known bee diseases are commonly associated with stress in bees. Of particular note, we have found all adult bees in CCD colonies are infected with fungal infections. These findings may indicate that the bees are being immunosuppressed, but none of the organisms found in these bees can be attributed as the primary culprits in CCD.

Here are three research questions Cox's working team is investigating:

  • Are there new or reemerging pathogens responsible for CCD?
  • Are environmental chemicals causing the immunosuppression of bees and triggering CCD?
  • Is a combination of stressors (e.g., varroa mites, diseases, nutritional stress) interacting to weaken bee colonies and allowing stress-related pathogens such as fungi to cause final collapse?

Another working team scientist, May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, is exploring behavioral reasons for the disappearance:

"The main hypotheses are based on the interpretation that the disappearances represent disruptions in orientation behavior and navigation," said May Berenbaum, an insect ecologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Orientation behavior and navigation...

Or, as one of the team members said: "The HoneyBees are Gone and we don't know where."

There are multiple working teams gathering in Washington this week. As a testament to how seriously this is being taken, they say they intend to pool their resources to determine the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. They'd better do it soon, because it turns out that the honeybees might just be the proverbial canary in the coal mine:

Honeybees are not the only pollinators whose numbers are dropping. Other animals that do this essential job -- non-honeybees, wasps, flies, beetles, birds and bats -- have decreasing populations as well.

Cherries, blueberries, apples, almonds, asparagus and macadamia nuts, approximately 84 other crops, and honey, beeswax and royal jelly and, of course, William Butler Yeats:

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade."

Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture
Dennis A. Cardoza, (D-CA) Chairman

Jurisdiction: fruits and vegetables; honey and bees; marketing and promotion orders; plant pesticides, quarantine, adulteration of seeds, and insect pests; and organic agriculture.


  • Dennis A. Cardoza, CA
  • Bob Etheridge, NC
  • Lincoln Davis, TN
  • Tim Mahoney, FL
  • John Barrow, GA
  • Kirsten E. Gillibrand, NY


  • Randy Neugebauer, TX
  • John R. "Randy" Kuhl, NY
  • Virginia Foxx, NC
  • Kevin McCarthy, CA
  • K. Michael Conaway, TX

Congressional Hearing on Colony Collapse Disorder:
Witness List (w/links to opening statements):

Panel I

Panel II

  • Mr. Paul Wenger, First Vice President, California Farm Bureau Federation, Modesto, California
  • Mr. David Ellingson, Commercial Bee Keeper, Ortonville, MN
  • Mr. Gene Brandi, Legislative Chairman, California State Beekeepers Association, Los Banos, California
  • Mr. Jim Doan, Commercial Bee Keeper, Hamlin, New York
  • Mr. Richard Adee, Legislative Committee Chairman, American Honey Producers Association, Bruce, South Dakota

The next congressional hearing is set for June 24-30 during National Pollinator Week (really).
Live Audio link: http://agriculture.house.gov/...

Let's hope there are some pollinators left to attend.

Link to the Congressional Research Service's March 26, 2007 Report
Lint to the CNN/Reuter's article cited above.