Bees are in trouble. All over North America we are seeing an alarming decrease in bee numbers that have scientists baffled as to the cause. Called colony collapse disorder (CCD), the Agricultural Research Services, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA), is leading several research efforts to try to find a reason for the reduction in numbers.
Annual losses in the years 2006-2011 averaged about 33 percent per year. Although losses in 2011-2012 were only 22 percent, researcher are not sure that there has really been a recovery. Right now there are about 2.5 million commercial colonies in the United States. Here on the North Shore there are many orchards and farms that rely on bee colonies to pollinate their crops. The almond growers in California need at least 1.5 million colonies just to service their trees. When you add in all of the other fruits berries, nuts and vegetables that need honey bees as pollinators, it amounts to about one-third of our diet.
There are four general categories that are being investigated for causes.
Pathogens such as viruses and bacteria; parasites that include Varroa mites; management stresses such as being transported too far during commercial enterprises; and environmental stresses such as limited or contaminated water, exposure to pesticides, and low nutritional value pollen. In a Public Library of Science study in 2006, it was found that there were 121 different types of pesticides within 887 wax, pollen, bee and hive samples.
“The pollen is not in good shape,” said Chris Mullin of Penn State University, lead author of the above study.
Honey bees are not native to North America. They were brought here from Europe by new settlers. However, they have grown in importance more than various other insects that can be pollinators because honey bees are more prolific and are easier to manage on a commercial level. That being said, the development of bee colonies is not an easy task.
The life cycle of a honey bee is fascinating. It starts when the queen bee lays an egg into an empty cylindrical cell in the honeycomb. From that point it takes only three weeks for the egg to develop through four stages to become an adult. In all the worker bee lives only about a total of five weeks during the summer or as long as five months through the winter.
Once the egg is dropped into the chamber, it stands on end the first day, bends a bit on the second, and on the third day it curls up on the bottom of the cell. On the fourth day the egg hatches to reveal a white legless larva that is composed of three segments: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. For the first three days of the lava stage it lays in the bottom of the cell and feeds on a protein-rich white milky fluid called royal jelly which is produced by the nurse bees.
On the fourth day their diet is switched to a mixture of honey and pollen called beebread that is produced by the worker bees. During these five days of feeding on this sweet mixture they grow quickly, soon filling the cell. It is then that they are not fed anymore. The cell in which they live is sealed over by the worker bees with a wax and pollen combination. Once deprived of food, the larva changes into a pupa, taking on all of the characteristics of an adult bee. It first spins a cocoon, and then gradually develops all of the structure of an adult, with the wings forming last.
At the ripe old age of 21 days, the now-adult bee bites its way out of the cell. over the next three weeks she goes through a progression of tasks choreographed by some natural instinct she is born with. The first thing she does is clean up any waste in her cell and the cells around her and then helps warm the brood nest. She then works for three days feeding the older larva honey and pollen.
The next five days she graduates to becoming a nurse bee, feeding the young larvae the royal jelly. At 12 days old she starts producing wax and helps constructing the comb and ripening the honey. Her last three days in the hive are spent guarding the entrance and ventilating the hive with her wings. She is now 42 days from being an egg.
She only has three more weeks to live. As a worker bee she will forage for nectar, pollen and water, sometimes flying great distances to do so. She then will have lived her full life and passes on.
There are three types of bees in a colony. The queen (usually only one), the drones and the worker bees. The queen can live three or four years in a single hive. During development, the queens and the drones are as much as twice as large as the worker bees and therefore require a larger cell. The queen bee can lay fertilized and unfertilized eggs and will lay as many as 1000 a day.
The fertilized eggs either become workers or queens. The difference is determined by the worker bees who feed the queen larva more royal jelly. They do this when the old queen dies or the hive becomes to big and needs to be split. There are usually several queen cells developing at one time. The first new queen to chew its way out of the cell immediately looks around for other developing queens, finds these larger cells and kills the developing queens with her stinger, thus eliminating any competition.
The unfertilized eggs become drones. The drones only service is to mate with the queen. Once doing so he is either killed by the mating queen, dies or is expelled from the hive in the fall.
The general public can help with honey bee survival. According to the Agricultural Research folks, you should “not use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants. In addition, the public can plant pollinator-friendly plants—plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, joe-pye weed, and other native plants.”
So the next time you see one of these busy little fellows flitting around your garden, try to remember how important these tiny critters are to our survival. Leave the pesticides in the garage and sit back and enjoy the natural order of things.