Retro Report: The Mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder

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Retro Report explores the mystery of "Colony Collapse Disorder," which pushed honeybees into the public eye.
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Our friends at the Retro Report documentary team are looking back at a mystery that began seven years ago.

This week, Retro Report explores the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, which pushed honeybees into the public eye back in 2006.

At the time, beekeepers began to report that the adult bee populations within a colony would suddenly disappear. In all cases, few if any adult bees were found in or near the dead colonies.

While worker bees would disappear in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the queen and young bees would remain in the hive, which was left with, in many cases, an abundance of honey and pollen reserves.

But hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees. As Retro Report’s findings show, the disorder—and its impact—is much more complicated than meets the eye.

“Bees have this behavior called altruistic suicide,” former Pennsylvania State Apiarist Dennis vanEngelsdorp tells Retro Report. “What happens is a bee somehow knows she is sick and flies away so she doesn't infect her nest mates. So we think that explains this behavior of collapse—why we're not finding dead bees and why we see this quick spiral down in population."

Though scientists have been studying CCD for the last several years, it continues to be a mystery.

“There’s not any one particular thing we can pin it on,” says Joshua Fisher, a Retro Report producer. “That was the idea early on—that there was some sort of novel pathogen out there that might be causing this mysterious disappearance. But [the conclusion] scientists have really come to is that it’s lots of different factors working together in ways that they still don’t entirely understand.”

According to Jeffrey Pettis, a bee research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are a variety of reasons that we are losing colonies, and it’s not just CCD.

“We haven't seen as much CCD over the past few years, and the classic symptoms of CCD have changed or disappeared, but we're still losing a lot of colonies,” Pettis tells Retro Report. “That can be for a variety of reasons—parasitic varroa mite, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition, nutritional stress, and in particular we’ve been seeing a lot of queen loss.”

Pettis says that the USDA is conducting research on queen bees that may help shed light on CCD and other ailments impact bee populations.

“The varroa mite is definitely probably the biggest issue facing beekeepers today, but that does not necessarily mean that it’s the cause of the colony collapse,” says Fisher. “There’s been a lot of confusion...It’s kind of became this catch all phrase referring to any time a bee colony died.”

Fisher adds that CCD is a very specific kind of death, adding that a death from an infestation of the varroa mite parasite is extremely different. For many beekeepers, CCD has presented extremely difficult challenges.

“We're buying bees to keep our heads above water,” Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper, tells Retro Report. “It's not the basic beekeeping that I remember as a kid and as a young guy running bees. There’s a whole lot of things that have changed. There's a lot of days I'd like to pull the plug and walk away. But I like what I’m doing—it's something that gets in your system and doesn't go away.”

Check out a video of Retro Report's findings below.