Series Introduction by: Keith S. Delaplane, Professor and Director, University of Georgia:
I was sharply reminded this past summer of the plight of the modern beekeeper. But to tell the story I must go back two years to the winter of 2007 when I came to realize that my personal apiary, a monument to 30+ years of accumulated equipment, trial and error, bee lines of every genetic description, spectacular honey crops and equally spectacular failures, moderate profits and occasional losses, the topic of books and TV shows, the artifact of a boyhood hobby that opened doors to science, learning, a life career, and the world stage of apiculture – had reached a disgraceful state of neglect. It had become the victim of my dwindling time and energy. Having a full-time job in honey bee research and education my weekdays were never far from the sights, sounds, and smells of beekeeping, and our 200-hive university apiary gave me plenty of opportunity to work in the bees. All this meant that I was getting my bee fix, and when the weekends arrived and I surveyed my personal hives, it was always easy to put off until next weekend the things that ought to have been done now. And by the winter of 2007 that policy had borne its fruit. My apiary was a shabby collection of dead-outs, sprinkled here and there with a colony that was valiantly hanging on in the midst of the carnage of those calling it quits. It was embarrassing.
Seized with a fit of resolve and new ambition, I purchased cases of new woodenware – 24 hives’ worth – and spent the winter of 2007 working in my shop and making Big Plans. By spring those boxes were filled with bees and new queens, and by that summer my apiary had roared back and I was selling nucs to meet an insatiable demand for bees among the swelling ranks of hobby beekeepers in north Georgia.
But the rot set back in. Life doesn’t stop coming at you, and the bees in the backyard, never clamoring for attention, were easy to ignore. The dead-outs increased, the wax moths proliferated, and bee traffic at the entrances subsided. This past summer I didn’t have enough bees to bother selling nucs, and today that brief empire of 24 hives has dwindled to one lonely survivor. Multiply that kind of colony attrition across the country and you get an idea of what the modern beekeeper is up against.
I take the time to tell this story because those of us who measure our beekeeping experience in decades will remember a time when such things didn’t happen. Bees, to paraphrase a saying usually attached to Mac computers, “just lived.” But now the default setting is different. Bee colonies, absent heroic inputs by the beekeeper – feeding, medicating, endlessly replacing queens – are just as likely to fizzle and die. Exceptions abound all over the place, and I’m overstating things to make a point. But there can be no denying that the fundamental sustainability of honey bee populations has plummeted in recent years.
In historic terms, bee die-offs are episodic and nothing new. But I think it’s arguable that the North American declines of recent years are systemic and qualitatively different from earlier records. We should not be surprised at this, owing to the fact our world – a world of synthetic pesticides, unprecedented intensity of agriculture, and global admixing of organisms – is qualitatively different from the world of, say, the Isle of Wight epidemic in Britain in the early1900s. Another thing that’s different is the degree of public attention being levied at the plight of pollinators. Bee decline has become the stuff of headline news. More to the point, bee decline has become the stuff of priority for federal agencies that fund research. And this is indeed a silver lining in the clouds.
I am heavily involved in one example of this new level of federal funding – the Managed Pollinator Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP). The CAP concept is an innovation of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service – the branch of USDA responsible for competitive grants (not to be confused with the Agricultural Research Service that administers in-house federal labs). CSREES solicits and awards no more than one CAP project per year. CAP projects are multi-state, multi-year, national in scope, and integrate research with information delivery. The idea is to eliminate redundancy and create a seamless transition between new research and the public clients who can use it. Examples of other CAP projects include Avian Influenza, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, and Johne’s Disease in cattle. 2008 was the year for Managed Pollinators. I am privileged to head a successful proposal team of over 20 research and extension specialists representing 17 institutions who pooled our resources and ideas into a Coordinated plan to reverse honey bee decline.
Our approach has been to assume that bee decline is a product of numerous interacting factors, synthetic and organic. Late research seems to bear this out. Colonies expressing a set of symptoms sometimes called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – rapid loss of adult bees and low ratios of adult bees to brood – have also shown comparatively high rates of mixed infections, including viruses and Nosema species . It has, in fact, proven difficult for our CAP team to isolate single infections of anything. Multiplicity rules. And no doubt, multiplicity complicates the research problem exponentially, but I am also concerned that multiplicity has engendered something close to complacency among beekeepers and researchers, the logic of which, stated or unstated, goes like this: There are so many interacting factors that we cannot understand the cause of bee decline so we are left with no practical recommendations except vague concepts like ‘practice good management.’ I, for one, am weary of these unproductive and thinly-veiled confessions of ignorance. It’s not much different saying bee decline is caused by everything than to say bee decline is caused by nothing. Yes, we all believe that Nosema, viruses, mites, nutrition, pesticides, and migratory stress can all combine in synergistic ways to kill bees. But which factors are the most potent? the most causative? the most insidious? the most fundamental? - in other words, the most important to focus on? I may be naïve to think this, but I am hoping that our research programs, both inside and outside the CAP team, will eventually focus, prioritize, and shorten the list of candidate agents. Only then can we make practical advances on solutions. But as it stands, we are essentially in the same place medical science found itself in the days before Louis Pasteur pioneered germ theory. Medical practitioners blundered around in the dark, seeing symptoms, cataloguing them, sometimes making logical associations between cause and effect, and even occasionally stumbling upon a cure. But once Pasteur stripped away the veil of ignorance surrounding microbes, medicine leaped forward like a horse out of the gate and the world has never been the same since.
Although we are not promising to release any horses, our CAP team is heavily invested in basic research on viruses, Nosema, pesticide toxicology, and comparative stress of migratory versus stationary management because we are guessing that these broad categories hit close to the mark in identifying the factors most contributive to bee decline. We are heavily invested in bee breeding and conserving genetic diversity because we think that when it comes to mites and pathogens, genetically resistant bees are going to be part of the answer. We are mindful of the economic and practical roadblocks to bee breeding and are taking steps to address these with new initiatives in beekeeper training and education. We are mindful that honey bees are not the only show in town and have allocated roughly 7% of our budget to toxicology and pathology of non-Apis pollinators. We are aware of the high expectations attached to this CAP when it comes to knowledge delivery and are pleased to partner with the ARS bee labs in launching an extensive web-based Bee Health information clearinghouse at eXtension.org – viewable at http://www.extension.org/bee%20health. This site is well worth your time. In its mature state it’s envisioned to become the most complete and authoritative compendium of literature on bee health management that science can offer.
Now after one year of funding I would like to begin a regular series of columns in this magazine to inform beekeepers of our activities and progress. In these pages you will be hearing from team members responsible for different goals of the program. These goals are defined broadly as (1) Determine and mitigate causes of CCD, (2) Incorporate resistance traits and increase genetic diversity, (3) Improve conservation and management of non-Apis bees, and (4) Deliver research knowledge to client groups. You can read about these goals, our team members, management structure, and other relevant information at our dedicated website http://www.beeccdcap.uga.edu/.
And lastly – a word about expectations. $4.1 million sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But $4.1 million divided among 4 years and 17 institutions translates to rather modest sums for each participant. We are not promising to solve bee decline and return beekeeping to the golden days before Varroa, but we do expect to narrow and focus the list of candidate factors, interpreting and delivering to beekeepers to the extent possible the practical applications of our work, operating without redundancy and with a high level of group coordination, input, critique, and readjustment. Mine is the unenviable job of trying to balance optimism with reality. While we celebrate this award as a positive expression of federal interest in the welfare of bees and beekeeping, we recognize that the problem is immense and the outcomes of our project not entirely predictable. A problem of this magnitude will demand sustained levels of research and education funding from private and public sources for years to come as well as a culture of cooperation, mutual goodwill, and openness to new ideas and expectations among bee scientists and beekeepers. I think we’re up to the task.
Next installment – Reed Johnson at the University of Nebraska will talk about unexpected interactions of bee hive chemicals.