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A beekeeper's discovery could help save our honeybees from a massive die-off

About five years ago, researchers studying colony collapse disorder, the syndrome in which most of the honeybees in a colony die or disappear without warning, discovered a new potential culprit: a fungal pathogen called Nosema ceranae. While they didn't believe it was the sole cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD, evidence suggested that it played a part in this epidemic, which has had severe effects on American agriculture. (Honeybee pollination is responsible for a third of the food we eat; crops that rely on it are valued at $15 billion annually.)

As scientists debated Nosema ceranae's role in the CCD mystery, Dan Harvey, a Washington State beekeeper, gloomily absorbed reports that his wet corner of the Pacific Northwest was likely a perfect incubator for the ravaging fungus. After many years of breeding disease-free bees, Harvey saw at least 90 percent of his stock disappear in the winter of 2007-2008. The same percentage died the following year. That devastating one-two punch threatened to destroy his entire livelihood.

Fast Facts

100: Percentage of U.S. apple, broccoli, and carrot crops dependent on pollination
90: Percentage of pollinators for these crops that are honeybees
50: Percentage by which U.S. managed-bee population has declined since 1940

But Harvey wasn't about to give up. For years he'd crossbred his commercial stock with hardy local feral bees -- the descendants of hives cultivated by early-twentieth-century homesteaders -- that had survived in the harsh environment of the Olympic Peninsula rainforest. This crossbreeding had yielded a stock that was resistant to the common but deadly varroa mite, a parasite that has also been implicated in CCD. Harvey wondered if there might exist, somewhere in his neck of the woods, wild bees that had developed a resistance or tolerance to Nosema ceranae.

For the better part of two years Harvey tramped through the forest, "just catching bees off flowers," and, with the help of scientists at Washington State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testing them for the fungus. And then one day, in a patch of young forest not far from his hometown of Port Angeles, Harvey found something remarkable: a feral colony that had somehow managed to remain entirely Nosema ceranae-free.

"I called them the bear bees, because a huge bear knocked the bait hive over," he says. But these bees had withstood far worse threats than bear attacks. "Nosema ceranae was everywhere, except this one wild swarm. I knew they had to be survivor stock."

Harvey brought some bees back to his beeyard, where he and his wife, Judy, crossbred them with stock from other colonies -- including one whose queen, he notes, will eject any varroa-infested brood from her hive. Now USDA researchers are testing the results of Harvey's crossbreeding techniques, trying to determine how well, not to mention why, these bees are handling pathogens that have destroyed other colonies. "Dan Harvey is the only person I've heard of who thinks he might have bees with resistance to Nosema ceranae," says Bob Danka, a USDA research entomologist. "He probably has the clearest sense of variance and susceptibility of anyone around."

Meanwhile, Dan Harvey continues to raise his crossbred bees without using chemical miticides and pesticides, which he believes can act as stressors and hamper the process of natural selection. His hives, once decimated, seem to be on the rebound. The result of this citizen-scientist's efforts might just be a honeybee that can stand up to two of the greatest scourges known to apian science -- and conceivably even a honeybee that could help researchers unlock the mystery of CCD, and send it buzzing into the past. Pretty sweet.

Read more about Dan Harvey and his bees in "The Green Beret Beekeeper."

image of Eric Scigliano
Seattle-based Eric Scigliano has written about Northwest marine and environmental issues for more than 20 years. His books include Puget Sound, Love War and Circuses, Michelangelo’s Mountain, and Flotsametrics: How One Man’s Obsession with Floati... READ MORE >
"Harvey brought some bees back to his beeyard, where he and his wife, Judy, crossbred them with stock from other colonies -- including one whose queen, he notes, will eject any varroa-infested brood from her hive." Queens do not eject brood themselves, the workers do that. It is a well known trait in bees developed for varroa resistance. Many bee breeders and beekeepers sell and work with this kind of honey bee, known as Minnesota Hygenic, or VSH/SMR.
I have been watching on what is happening to the bee's. I had wet down my roses, when i saw a honey bees land on one of the blossoms. It didn't go into the rose but instead went to a water drop. It sucked almost all of the water. I think that one of the problems is the bees are thirsty. I have built a bee watering device. This allows water to drip upon a weathered old fence board. This allows the water to spread out into the many cracks in the weathered board. The bee's don't like to get their feet wet. This way medicine can be applied in a miniscue amount to the drinking water. I am preparing an article on this Bee Fountain. So keep on buzzing. Gene Hecker
Risking exposure of my ignorance for the sake of the sweet Honey Bee here's a guess. I can't help but notice those smoke-controllers the keepers constantly use to direct and discipline their hives. Does not this smoke agent cause the bees at least some loss of defense; is this not an obvious stressor???
Actually smoke has been used for about as long as bees have been kept without any problems so far. The smoke is used to calm the bees so that they respond less aggressively to their hive being intruded. As far as I know there is no evidence of smoke compromising their immune systems.
Wow what optimism! I'm a beekeeper from Tennessee, and I have to take exception to a couple of points in this fluffy article. First, there is no way o come upon a hive and determine they are Nosema free. Nosema can only be verified with a gut sample and a microscope. There are symptoms, like excrement on the front of the hive, but they are never conclusive of Nosema. Most beekeeper medicate for Nosema without any scientific verification. Its that hard to detect. Secondly, there's no such thing as a queen that ejects brood, ever, at all. Once she's laid an egg, she never gives a second thought, glance, or action to a developing larvae. Varroa mites cling to the skin of larvae (and adults), particularly just before the brood are capped for metamorphic processes. It would be difficult if not impossible for bees to detect the tiny parasites on brood within cells, and take any action at all. There are strains of bees which have heightened grooming habits, often called "hygenic bees," which spend more time checking other adults for mites. Its difficult as a beekeeper in these times to see so many half-informed pipe dream pieces. Typical American thinking: where's the silver bullet? Where's the simple fix? These attitudes disarm us. Making light of a problem as serious as we have with our bees will only decrease our will to focus greater resources toward a proven and effective treatment for CCD.