The Plight of the Honeybee

By Emma Ogutu

Honeybees have been vanishing at a fast rate over the last five years, threatening Michigan’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Many fruits, vegetables and animal crops depend on the bees for pollination.

A scientist investigates Colony Collapse Disorder. Photo: Washington State University

Since the initial report of their disappearance in the winter of 2006, scientists like Michigan State University’s Zachary Huang have been scrambling to unravel the mystery – dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. He offers his expertise to the Michigan Beekeepers Association.

His current research focuses on two possible culprits:  the parasitic nosema and varroa mites, whose effect on bees makes them susceptible to pesticides and reduces the lifespan and fertility of infant queen bees. In the last two decades, Varroa mites have wiped out wild honeybees and about a third of their managed kin in Michigan, according to MSU’s Agriculture Extension.

Other studies have linked the disappearance of honeybees to a parasitic fly or agricultural chemicals, but Huang is quick to point out that there’s no single factor responsible for the massive kill. “It’s a cumulative result on a number of factors,” he said.

Honeybee on Knapweed. Photo: Trish Steel, Wikimedia Commons

The clearing of natural habitats to pave way for more agricultural land or other developments coupled with the practice of planting single crops in large areas could also be major factors causing this phenomenon, according to the Huang. “When you clear natural habitats, you wipe out plants that provide food and other defenses to the bees, and when you plant a single crop in thousands of acres, you eliminate bees’ food diversity,” he said.

The loss of honey bees is quite insidious; sometimes up to 40 percent are lost in a winter season, according to MSU’s Agriculture Extension. “You never realize the immediate loss of a species because there are hundreds of thousands of species out there,” Huang said.  “That makes it even harder to predict the effect on crops.”

You can find honeybees and knapweed in several of MNA’s sanctuaries, including Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary, Karner Blue Nature Sanctuary and Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary. MNA’s policy is to remove invasive species, such as knapweed, so that they can be replaced with bee-friendly native species. Some plants such as late figwort, swamp milkweed and Culver’s root, can benefit from removal of knapweed while providing bees plenty of pollen and nectar.