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Health risks & environmental issues: Colony Collapse Disorder.

In last month's Health Risks column (Townsend Letter, May 2008), I discussed the unusual, mysterious, and threatening disappearance of honeybees. Colony losses reaching 30% have been considered normal. The usual causes of honeybee deaths include varroa mites, hive beetles, and American foulbrood (a bacterial disease rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotic treatment). Wax moths usually appear in weak or sick colonies, but do not directly contribute to bee deaths. (1), (2) In 2006, bee deaths began escalating, with some commercial beekeepers in this country reporting colony losses between 50% and 100%. Reports of the unusual die-offs have been coming in from other areas around the world, as well. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the term given to the new malady. (3)


Honeybees are major contributors to our food supply, pollinating more than 90 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which account for approximately one-third of the food we consume. Their economic contribution is estimated to be $15 billion annually. Honeybees are grossly overworked and exceedingly underappreciated.

Honeybees are also sensitive little creatures, requiring a variety of plants for their own nutrition. Modern agriculture cultivates thousands of acres of a single crop, forcing honeybees to fly well beyond their two-mile comfort zone in pursuit of dietary variety. Many weeds, such as dandelions, lamb's quarters, wild mustards, and others, are rich sources of nutrition for honeybees (and humans too), but are purposely destroyed by toxic chemicals that are harmful to honeybees (and, of course, humans, too).

Large-scale commercial agriculture also requires large-scale pollination, at precisely the right time for each crop. Commercial beekeepers manage ever-increasing numbers of bee colonies, trucking them around the country in 18-wheelers, wherever and whenever a crop needs pollinating. Altering their natural lifestyle by confinement, over-crowding, lack of nourishing forage, inferior food substitutes, and other stressors are taking a severe toll on honeybees.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Hives suffering from CCD appear to have a pattern of very unusual symptoms:

* A seemingly healthy colony with many individuals rapidly deteriorates to a colony with few or no surviving bees.

* Queens are found with a few young bees, lots of brood (developing offspring), and adequate food reserves.

* No dead bees are found anywhere near the colony. They simply disappear.

* The remaining bees are infected with a high number of known disease organisms.

* More puzzling is the lack of evidence of infestation by varroa and tracheal mites, two parasites that have been a serious problem to commercial beekeepers over the past 20 years, weakening the bees, spreading viral diseases, and causing major colony losses.

* There is an unusual delay of bees from other colonies robbing the collapsed colony and of pest invasion by wax worm moths or small hive beetles. Penn State entomologist Diana Cox-Foster suspects the presence of a deterrent chemical or toxin in the hive may be responsible for the delayed invasions. (3)

All the beekeepers initially interviewed about their colony losses were migratory beekeepers, and all had moved their colonies at least twice in the 2006 season, with some colonies being moved as many as five times in the season. Colonies constantly on the move can be stressed by confinement, temperature fluctuations, and possible reduction or cessation of egg laying. Moving may further hasten the disease load from increased defecation in the colony and forced mingling of young and older (possibly infected bees, who would otherwise be out foraging). Constant moving might also expose colonies to new diseases or pathogens. (4)

Other variable stressors that occurred at least two months prior to the first die-offs reported by interviewed beekeepers included apiary overcrowding, pollination of crops with little nutritional value, dramatic shortage of pollen and nectar, and drought conditions limiting bee access to clean water. (4) Stress compromises the immune system of bees, making them more susceptible to infection by opportunistic microbes, not unlike the HIV/AIDS response in humans.

Pesticide contamination by a new class of neonicotinoids (imidacloprid) and other recently introduced chemicals (clothianiden and thiamethoxam) are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be highly toxic to honeybees. One lab study found the synergistic effect of the neo-nicotinoids in combination with certain fungicides increased their toxicity over 1,000-fold. Both the neo-nicotinoids and fungicides are widely used agricultural products. (4)

Corn, sunflowers, and rape pollen grown from treated seed was found to have systemic levels of imidacloprid high enough to endanger honeybees. Imidacloprid impairs the memory and brain metabolism of bees, especially the area of the brain that is used for making new memories, which may impede foraging bees' ability to orient themselves and find their way back to the hives. Responding to an outcry from the nation's beekeepers, France decided to ban one of the neo-nicotinoids. (4), (5)

Corn is a major feed stock for meat animals in the US. High fructose corn syrup is in nearly every processed food and beverage consumed by American children. Canola oil (rapeseed) is another major ingredient in our food supply. If this new class of pesticides is affecting the brains and memories of bees, what potential harm could it have on the brains of our young children? I doubt that anyone is looking into this.

The United States Department of Agriculture's Research Service (ARS), in conjunction with researchers at Penn State's Department of Agricultural Sciences and the University of Illinois, has developed a four-part plan in response to CCD that includes the following:

1. surveying and data collection

2. analyzing samples of pests, pathogens, and pesticides, or other unusual factors

3. experimenting with and analyzing potential causes of CCD

4. developing new methods to improve bee health and reduce susceptibility to CCD (6), (7)

Many scientists believe genetically modified crops and electromagnetic radiation from tower transmitters and cell phones may be additional stressors to honeybees, but these factors will not get serious consideration from the government-funded study group.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Corn and canola were among the first major agricultural crops to be genetically engineered with their own built-in pesticide and have spread widely since 1966. Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops may be adding to the accelerated demise of honeybees. The genetically modified seeds have a transplanted segment of DNA to produce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in each plant cell. Bt is a naturally occurring pesticide used by organic farmers and others to control crop damage from butterflies and is even used by some beekeepers to reduce damage from wax moths. (1)

Canadian farmers have begun to notice a lack of wax moths around their hives even though Bt was not being used. However, they believed Bt was brought into the hives from bees foraging among transgenic crops. Corn does not require bee pollination, however, bees forage heavily on corn flowers to obtain pollen for the rearing of young broods. GMO crops have increased exponentially with tens of millions of acres of transgenic crops, allowing Bt genes to move off crop fields.


Pennsylvania beekeeper and biologist John MCDonald is one of several scientists who believe GMO crops pose a serious threat to honeybees. One trial of GMO crops in the Netherlands quickly led to bee deaths within 100 kilometers of the planted fields. In 1997, Thailand planted a trial of Bt cotton and found that 30% of the bees in the vicinity of the trial died. (1), (8), (9)

Robert Jay Rowen, MD, editor of the health newsletter Second Opinion, first began to notice the fruit trees in his California backyard failed to produce fruit even though they had been covered with blossoms. He also noticed a lack of honeybees. Further investigation led him to discover that among the four counties around him, Mendocino County, which had passed its own GMO ban in 2004, suffered the least bee die-offs of all. (9)

GMO crops were developed in the 1970s by Monsanto when technology made it possible for genes of one species to be forced into the DNA of an unrelated species. Pesticide genes were spliced into corn, rapeseed (canola), and cotton. Soy was genetically modified not to wither and die under heavier dousing with the herbicide Round-Up[R], which is also made by Monsanto. The transient genes produce proteins that give the recipient plant traits the developer deems desirable, plus additional proteins that have never before been part of the food supply, and side-effects yet to be determined. (10)

In a precedent-setting move, which experts believe was illegal, Monsanto managed to circumvent all regulatory safeguards and extensive testing including long-term animal feeding studies, as well as a requirement to have the new ingredient identified on food labels. In 1992, Monsanto persuaded Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials (against the better judgment of FDA scientists) to allow genetically modified (GM) foods to pass as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), a status that allows products to enter the commercial market without any additional testing if there has been sufficient peer-reviewed published studies, plus scientific consensus that the product is safe. GM foods had neither, says Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Change and the newly released, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. (10)

From that time forward, the FDA has not required any safety evaluations or product labels to inform consumers, nor required further notice prior to new GM food products coming on the market. Henry Miller, MD, had a leading role in the biotechnology issues at the FDA during the years 1974 through 1994, and he witnessed the generous policy of the White House, which gave the biotech industry the privilege of self-policing. "In this area," declared Dr. Miller, "the US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do, and told them to do." (10)

Thanks to a lack of cooperation from the biotech industry, there is only a handful of studies looking into the safety of GM foods. Nonetheless, these studies verify concerns expressed by FDA scientists and other pro-health advocates, including the following:

* Genes inserted into plant DNA may produce proteins that are inherently unhealthy.

* The inserted gene has been found to transfer into human gut bacteria, possibly ending up in human cellular DNA, where it might produce its protein over time.

* Toxic substances in GM animal feed could potentially bioaccumulate in milk and meat products.

* Farmer and medical reports link GM feed to thousands of sick, sterile, and dead animals. (10)

The American public has been kept in the dark about what has been going on behind closed doors regarding the biotech industry and GMOs in our food supply. France, on the other hand, has announced a ban on planting genetically engineered crops until the safety of the crops can be fully assessed. French President Nicholas Sarkozy based this decision on the desire to follow the "precautionary principle" of "first, do no harm." Vive la France!

Electromagnetic Radiation

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) generated by mobile phones and transmission towers has long been suspected of interfering with the navigational ability of honeybees. Could this be another factor in the mysterious CCD, since bees are not returning to their hives and are simply vanishing with no tell-tale signs? Since 2006, half the American states as well as officials from a number of other countries have been reporting cases of CCD. Apiarists from Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Scotland, Wales, England, and New Zealand have all reported cases of CCD. (11)

Early research from Germany has shown that proximity to power lines can affect bees' behavior. Some British experts suspect the high use of mobile phones and mast towers is placing an additional burden on bees, adding to recent cases of CCD in the UK. (11)

Though small in scope, a 2005 study at Landau University in Zurich wanted to look at the effects of high-frequency, non-ionizing radiation on the learning process of vertebrates and chose honeybees because their brain structure concerning associative learning is comparable to those of vertebrates. Because of their size, honeybees could be reasonably stimulated by the frequency of DECT (cordless phone base stations which differ from cellular phones). (11-13) The study placed handsets near hives and observed that Global System for Mobile communications (GSM: originally from Groupe Special Mobile) phone radiation in the frequency range 900 MHz-1800 MHz caused bees to avoid the hive. Dr. Jochen Kuhn, one of the study's designers, speculated the "waggle" dance, performed by bees on the honeycomb to communicate with others, might be influenced by the radiation. While not all scientists agree on the importance of the dance as a primary means of communication between bees, past studies have shown that it can definitely affect bee movement patterns. Kuhn suggested the 200-300 cycles/second oscillations that dancing bees produce through honeycomb may be interrupted by resonance effects caused by the phone handsets. (13)

The 2005 study found a significant difference between irradiated and non-irradiated: 39.7% of the non-irradiated bees vs. only 7.3% of the irradiated bees returned to the hive. A follow-up test in 2006 using 16 colonies resulted in a smaller variation, though still considered significant by the scientists. (12) Far from definitive on the topic of how electromagnetic radiation can interfere with bees' behavior, the complete lack of studies in this regard makes the Landau study all the more interesting. Like the bio-tech industry, the telecommunications industry is powerful and far-reaching and chooses not to invest in or encourage the kind of health research that would benefit humans and wildlife.

A Naturalistic Bee Doctor Speaks

It is always so wonderful to discover great wisdom in your own hometown. This was the case recently when I phoned a local beekeeper to get his take on the CCD problem. I didn't realize he had given up his official day job to be a fulltime apiarist and consultant to a four-state area, helping other beekeepers maintain healthy colonies. Chris Harp, of New Paltz, New York, began working with bees 18 years ago and became so involved with studying the Rudolf Steiner philosophy of how bees exist in accordance with nature that he now teaches this approach in his own beginning and advanced classes.

Harp believes the techniques used by commercial pollinators play the most significant roll in the decline of honeybees. These techniques include managing huge numbers of colonies, using synthetic chemicals for pest management, trucking bees all over the country to work thousands of acres of monoculture crops, and feeding the bees GMO corn syrup. "When combined with unusual weather conditions of drought and climate change, these factors all play an equal part." Harp is emphatic when he says, "These factors equal the two main issues in the current Colony Collapse Disorder--stress and malnutrition--that impact the honeybees' immune systems."

The honeybees in Chris Harp's care are lucky little critters. Instead of routine applications of pesticides and antibiotics, his bees are carefully monitored to first determine the severity of a pest invasion. They are provided with a special health tea brewed with dandelion roots, chamomile, thyme, and other herbs, which is homeopathically added to a cane sugar solution with a dash of sea salt (rich in minerals). If varroa mites seem to be a problem, thyme is a wonderful herb, because it is a powerful antiviral with antibacterial and antiseptic properties.

Dealing with aberrant weather conditions poses a more serious problem. Unseasonably warm weather during winter months makes the bees active. Since it is still winter, there is no pollen to gather for food. An increased activity level raises the temperature in the hives, increasing the moisture content, then a new freeze comes along, taking a further toll on the honeybees.

To improve the health of honeybee colonies and prevent a total collapse of the honeybee industry, it may be necessary to scale down and work more closely with nature. Smaller farms, greater variety of crops, fewer toxic chemicals, and smaller local colonies of bees may be the answer. The many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms popping up across the country will surely be part of the solution. This solution runs counter to commercial agricultural where bigger is better, but if all the bees die, the agriculture industry will suffer greatly, as will the rest of us.

In next month's column, this discussion will conclude with a look at what we can do now to help the honeybees survive.


(1.) Hutaff M. Give bees a chance. The Simon, May 1, 2007. Available at: Accessed March 10, 2008.

(2.) Calderone N. Bee colony collapse disorder. Cornell Univ. Entomology. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2008.

(3.) Penn. State Univ. Staff. Bees in crisis. Cooperative State Research Educ. & Ext. Services. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

(4.) vanEngelsdorp D, et al. Fall dwindle disease: Preliminary report. Available at: Linked to CCD Working Group Report. Accessed February 4, 2008.

(5.) Frisch T. Our honeybees are dying: Nobody knows why. The Valley Table. Aug/Sept 2007.

(6.) St. Clair Rice G. The puzzling plight of the honeybees. Hudson Valley Green Times. 2007;27 (3).

(7.) Kaplan K. USDA announces colony collapse disorder research action plan. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2008.

(8.) McDonald J. Could genetically modified crops be killing bees? San Francisco Chronicler, March 10, 2007. Available at: Accessed March 16, 2008.

(9.) Rowen RJ. A mysterious killer of honeybees threatens our food supply. Second Opinion. May 2007; XVII (5).

(10.) Smith J. FDA sanctioned genetically engineered foods circle the globe. Well Being journal. Mar/Apr 2008.

(11.) Lean G. Are mobile phones wiping out our bees? The Independent. April 15, 2007. Available at: html. Accessed February 12, 2008.

(12.) Kimmel S, et al. Electromagnetic radiation: Influences on honeybees (Apis mellifera). Available at: Accessed March 10, 2008.

(13.) Melville B. Bees "killed by mobile phone signals." Telegraph. April 16, 2007. Available at: 6.xml.

(14.) Chris Harp and Grai Rice run HoneybeeLives: A Naturalist's Approach to Beekeeping. For more information, visit or call 845-255-6113.

by Rose Marie Williams, MA

Rose Marie Williams, MA

156 Sparkling Ridge Road

New Paltz, New York 12561

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Author:Williams, Rose Marie
Publication:Townsend Letter
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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