Honeybee Update - July 28, 2010
Jeff Schalau, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Most readers have been following the plight of honeybees and their declining numbers due to the phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Since CCD’s appearance in North America in late 2006, research has focused on identifying the cause. Researchers currently believe that CCD is caused by a combination of factors which include a fungal parasite (Nosema ceranae) which lives in the bee’s gut and parasitism by Varroa mites: small parasitic arthropods that suck the blood of honeybees thereby weakening them. Viruses are also being examined for their role in CCD: the primary one under investigation is called Israel Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) which is vectored by Varroa mites.

The picture is not very clear at this point as scientists also suspect that environmental factors and bee management practices also contribute to CCD. Pesticide exposure continues to be explored and may also be a contributing factor. Electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phones and other communications technologies was once under suspicion, but most researchers do not believe it is a contributing factor.

When viewed individually, the suspected causes of CCD can be addressed. Monitoring and purposeful application of miticides can be used to manage Varroa mites. Improved Varroa mite management should also lead to better virus management. While the role of pesticides is still being investigated, agricultural producers and homeowners can eliminate, minimize, and/or time pesticide applications to minimize risk to honeybees.

Economically, the value of the honeybee to United States agriculture has been estimated at $14 billion per year. Domestic honeybees pollinate over one hundred different fruit and vegetable crops in the U.S., including oranges, apples, and blueberries, as well as almond trees and animal food crops like clover. California’s almond orchards alone require 1.5 million hives to pollinate them which produce over two billion dollars worth of almonds. To date, Arizona has not been as severely affected by CCD as other states

Most domestic honeybees raised by beekeepers are European in origin (Apis melifera). These bees have been in the New World since the early 1600’s when European settlers brought the honeybee with them, thus introducing this species to North America. Prior to that time, native plants and crops grown by Native Americans were pollinated by native bees. Some researchers are exploring the potential for these native bees to conduct pollination in agricultural crops. Many of these native bees live a solitary life rather than the complex social living arrangements of honeybees.

In Arizona and other western states, the Africanized honeybee has become naturalized. Many Arizona beekeepers knowingly keep Africanized bees and have learned to coexist with their more aggressive nature. Some of these beekeepers claim that the Africanized bees are hardier and hence more resistant to CCD. However, leading researchers do not agree. They point out that commercial beekeepers put their colonies on trucks and haul them long distances to pollinate crops. These commercial honeybees are fed protein supplements and treated similarly to domestic animals. These commercial hives are less likely to have Africanized genetics because they are more often handled, tended, and requeened to produce calmer bees. Intensive production practices and hauling them from place to place further stresses these bees and may be a contributing factor to CCD.

The causes of CCD are still unclear and lots of research is being conducted to clarify the causes and find solutions. I know readers are interested in the plight of honeybees and I’ll continue following this problem as new information comes to light. As the search for the causes of CCD continues, animal rights groups are stirring up opposition against beekeeping because they believe that honeybees are being exploited and that honey and crop pollination are the products of animal abuse. I will not pursue that line of thought any further for now, but it is truly an interesting world we live in. I hope you are having a good summer and your gardens are productive!

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: August 20, 2012
Content Questions/Comments: jschalau@ag.arizona.edu

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