The End of Colony Collapse Disorder?

There was a somewhat encouraging but confusing opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday about the decline of honeybees. 

In the column, biologist Noah Wilson-Rich states that “Scientists I’ve spoken to in both academia and government have strong reason to believe that CCD [Colony Collapse Disorder] is essentially over.” Wilson-RIch claims that there hasn’t been a definitive case of documented CCD in three years.

Bumble Bee, Wild Bergamot
Bumblebee coming in for a landing

My first reaction to the column was to wonder if the author was part of some front group put up by the pesticide industry to counter demands for banning neonicotinoid insecticides. But Wilson-Rich seems to be legitimate: he is a professor of biology at Simmons College in Boston. He is the founder of the Best Bees Company, which installs and manages hives for residential, commercial, and agricultural properties. Profits generated by Best Bees is dedicated to bee research. And he is a giver of TED talks, if you like that kind of thing.

And Wilson-Rich is not saying that all is well, far from it. CCD may be over, but bees are still dying. He says that honeybee losses have stabilized at about 30% a year: “The danger to bees is no longer growing.” I found myself a bit confused about what exactly that means.

2014-07-04 16.28.06 Tithonia and bee

According to the article, bees are still threatened by diseases, insecticides,  and habitat loss. Wilson-Rich advocates moving away from monocultural farming practices and doing more to encourage pollination by native bees. In fact, he cites research indicating that expensive hired honeybees (living in hives trucked from farm to farm) are getting the credit for pollination performed by other species of bee.

Have you seen this article? What did you make of it?

53 Comments on “The End of Colony Collapse Disorder?

    • I totally agree. The US has a long way to in terms of restricting pesticide use and restoring/protecting habitat. And the author seems to agree with that as well, though some may see the article as justification for complacency.

  1. I’m glad he’s bringing focus to native bees, something that seems to get lost in the conversation with non-gardeners. I would love to see subsidies for planting wildflowers.

    • I read somewhere that leaving fallow land for wildflowers actually increases total yield and profit. Subsidies for wildflowers sounds good though maybe we should start by eliminating the subsidies that incentivize planting from fencerow to fencerow.

  2. 30% is still a lot of dying honeybees. I’m worried that such articles may cause people to relax a little but the other causes for bees dying are still growing. And I understand that it is not only the virus but also pesticides that cause CCD.The scientist’s figures may be correct, but reporting it in this way may be misleading – blame it on the journalists! (Our press is no longer reliable as so many of our journalists have personal interests at heart.) Germany is one of the few European countries also affected badly by the virus that causes CCD, but, at 12%, bee losses are still at a lower rate than in the US. Although most of the studies carried out here are by the chemicals industry….

    • True, 30% every year does sound like a lot. That’s one reason I was confused by that paragraph. I do think pesticide use is much less restricted here in the US which is probably one reason why the bee decline has been more severe.

  3. I take all these numbers, regardless who it comes from, with a grain of salt. I think there is always a hidden agenda so I’m skeptical that way. It is certainly encouraging news but I think that we still need to be cautious and make great strides in restoring habitat for all wildlife. I’m glad there was a plug for native bees!

  4. I also think that the importance of native bees (most of which are solitary) is underestimated. Here, we are in the woods, very far from cities, and there are plenty of bees but the vast majority are native ones. Once in a while you see an honeybee.

  5. This looks like another example of an effective media strategy invented by the tobacco lobby. When you know you are wrong in the debate you can simply extend the deadline to the inevitable outcome by spreading doubt. We’ve seen this same thing happen recently with the climate change issue. And as I read the comments ahead of me it seems to have done the job of reassuring people when maybe they ought to be alarmed.

    Here is one simple question he doesn’t really address. How can a 30% annual loss ever be sustainable? Even the USDA’s official report from this year says the die off numbers are too high for bee keeping to be sustainable and their number was like 20%. A report from Harvard this year found a direct link between insecticide use and CCD. His opinion is not shared by industry, government or other researchers.

    This guy works for a really small college. Who funds it and his research there? He doesn’t disclose that information. He is also a late comer to bee keeping and applied science. I will not be accepting his opinion over what is a scientific consensus. Plus this opinion piece is nearly a direct echo of a piece this spring from the NY Times. Full of opinion and short on truth.

    • I was also suspicious when I read the article, but to my eyes the author seemed legitimate. On the other hand, if CCD were “over” wouldn’t someone besides him be talking about it? I am not a science guy so I was reluctant to draw definite conclusions, I guess I wanted the article to be legit because like many people I am desperate for good news. If what you say is true I hope there will be a strong response in the NYT from a more legitimate authority.

  6. Another incredibly relevant post, Jason. Thanks. And I love the comment thread that it has generated. There needs to be both reason to hope and continual vigilance/activism. I found it interesting that there were other collapses in history. However, just as with climate change, this kind of information can lull one into thinking that what is happening today is “just natural,” when it most certainly isn’t. Thanks, again, Jason, for helping to keep all of us informed and engaged.

    • It would be terrible if this article had the affect of lulling people into complacency. That is exactly what we don’t need. But as I said above, I think many people including myself are rather desperate for a bit of good news.

  7. Hi Jason, I have just googled the article and I found it hard to believe. The wording is ambiguous and no sources cited. I googled further other articles on CCD and this seems to be the only article currently reporting this. Am I correct to think his own business is shipping bees around the country to pollinate farmers crops (8th paragraph)? The writer goes on to talk about pesticide bans is there a neonicotinoid ban in the USA? I am glad you shared this article and the chain of comments especially Debras.

    • Hi Julie. I looked at the company website and it seems they install and manage hives, but don’t move them around – he seems to be critical of that practice. As for neonicotinoids – they are not banned (few chemicals are in this country), but a proposed ban is under review.

  8. I saw a summary of the article and had basically the same questions you did. Accepting a 30% loss of honeybees doesn’t sound positive to me – it may just be that we now know where to look for the missing bees. I’m glad to see mention of the native pollinators and their effectiveness, but they are also in danger from the same sorts of problems that are decimating the non-native honeybee – so it doesn’t do to relax our concern.

  9. I wish I had something smart to say, but I couldn’t make much out of the link. Seems to lean towards bees are in trouble but you can’t use the trendy term CCD anymore…. Until it rears it’s head again.
    I still have no plans to douse my garden in neonics (although I do use them) mostly because I don’t like the idea of making a whole plant or part of the garden toxic to all insects.

  10. thanks for bringing this up. Interesting topic. I haven’t read this particular article but the New York Times recently wrote a factually incorrect piece on another matter recently and was raked over the coals for it. So my red flags went up when you said where this article was published. My question is have we really discovered the exact cause of CCD? I know there are a great many plausible theories but not sure a cause has been proven. In which case, how can someone say the disorder is over if we don’t really fully understand it in the first place?

    • Good point. The NYT science reporter does have a bad rep – he just came out with a book on genetics and intelligence which is a rehash of The Bell Curve. A number of geneticists have absolutely trashed it. You would think the NYT could get someone better than this.

  11. Hey Jason,
    Wasn’t it Virginia’s father who told her if she saw it in the NYT it must be true in regards to Santa Clause? So I in turn must believe this one. Thanks for bringing to our attention. I wish the general public was more aware of the long term threat to mankind as we know it. I do believe it’s a threat to our national and global security and research should be funded accordingly, my friend.

  12. I have not seen the article though like you would have believed at first read that it was a set up by pesticide companies. It is reassuring though I do believe we have a major crisis on our hands and hope that we don’t just sweep it under the rug because of a bit of good news. Thanks for letting us know…I am off to read now! Have a great week Jason!

  13. Hello Jason, I would hang-fire until there is more study to back up the article before getting the champagne out. It seems to say that bees are still dying off, but not as fast as they were before. I think there is still a lot of work to do to get bees back on track and healthy again.

  14. I agree with Sunil. It bothers me that people might get the impression that we don’t have to worry about our bee populations anymore. It seems like the public (general masses) are just now beginning to realize how vital our pollinators are and their role in their disappearance. But while the author does seem legit, I wonder who funded the research? That piece is missing.

  15. 30% losses still sound very high to me, as you say the article didn’t seem to be very clear. I have also read that other types of ‘wild’ bees do a lot of the pollinating and they are also in decline and maybe we should be even more worried about that. Habitat loss may well be a major player in reduced numbers but if that it is the case there is all the more reason to safeguard the bees that remain, so not using chemicals has to be of great importance. I don’t use any chemicals in my garden and it is always full of all kinds of bees.

  16. Great post Jason. People need to be constantly reminded that there is no cause for complacency. Bees are still dying.

  17. I read the article too and am late to this discussion but agree with all of the above. I don’t think we fully understand the entire interconnectedness between species and how dependent we all are on each other. Or at least how dependent the human species is on the natural order of things as contrasted with what we have done to alter it.

  18. I have not read it but will search it out…interesting that is is over…i fear the attack on pollinators is far from over but I do agree that native bees are not given enough credit…they do all the pollination in my garden.

  19. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t yet read the article, but I will now. Thanks for sharing the link. Colony Collapse Disorder still seems like a mystery–even to the researchers. It will be interesting to see if we ever come to a definitive agreement on its cause(s). But, as you say, no one can argue with the diminishing habitat of bees, butterflies, ground-nesting birds, and other wildlife. Well, they can argue, but the habitat is factually diminishing. Our gardens are more important than ever.

    • I agree with you. I like to think that the cumulative affect of many small gardens could be a great one. Douglas Talamy seems to think so.

  20. How odd….I didn’t receive email notification of this post.
    Yes, like you I find this rather confusing. CCD may be dying out….yet the bees still are. Worldwide their numbers continue to drop, I watched an interesting programme re the possible cause lately and a bunch of experts have now come up with a theory stating that bees are dying from a kind of AIDS, the causes being many, from pesticides, a lack of variety in planting, non-native plants,pollutants, the list was long and scary.
    On a positive though, the plants I added this year have increased the number of bees in the garden.xxx

  21. I’m late getting to this conversation and haven’t had a chance to get to the article, but I’m willing to take a stab at the seeming contradiction between the “good news” that CCD may be over and the continuing 30% loss rate. I think what the author is saying is that rates of bee mortality are no longer rising (“growing”) but have leveled off — at about 30%. The good news is that CCD may no longer be a major threat; it’s in the nature of deadly epidemics to burn themselves out over time, and this one seems to be following that pattern. The bad news is that there are still many other threats to bees that need to be addressed.

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