Update of the Apiculture Program at NCSU
It has been about six months now since the initial media blitz about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, hit the nation's headlines. There has been lots of discussion, congressional testimony, and endless speculation about the potential causes and consequences of the missing bees, but unfortunately we are no closer to a definitive answer than we were half a year ago.
For those of you who may not have heard about CCD, it is largely unknown problem that honey bee colonies have been experiencing where the entire adult populations seemingly disappear. What is left behind a the hive is sometimes a small fist-sized cluster of young bees with the queen (but usually not), a large area of brood (suggesting that the colony collapse occurs in a short time interval; how can a few hundred bees raise eight frames of brood?!), and ample food stores of honey and pollen. Curiously, robbing bees from neighboring colonies, wax moths, and small hive beetles all seem to keep their distance from the empty hives of collapsed colonies, at least for a period of several weeks. For a single colony, this collection of symptoms may be curious but not all that alarming. But when it happens to hundreds of colonies in the same area all at the same time, it is quite obvious something strange is going on. Indeed, hundreds beekeepers across the nation have reported anywhere from 30% - 100% of their colonies collapsing in this way.
NC State is a part of a loose conglomerate of researchers that has formed to jointly investigate the underlying cause(s) of CCD. Currently, those efforts have focused on three main areas:
Diseases and parasites: much emphasis by CCD researchers has been placed on finding something new about an existing pathology (for example, a novel interaction between a virus and varroa mites) or possibly a yet-unknown new disease that may be associated with the disorder. As yet, there is no current "front runner" that seems to be associated with CCD.
Environmental contaminants: CCD may be a result of certain in-hive chemicals, mainly those used to control varroa mites, or possibly other agricultural insecticides that bees may pick up from their external environment. If researchers can find certain pesticide residues in the CCD colonies that are absent in the non-CCD colonies, that will provide strong circumstantial evidence toward a particular contaminant. Currently, however, there is no such smoking gun.
Nutritional stress: placing hives in or near certain agricultural crops may deplete them of foraging resources that the bees need for healthy and proper development. Transporting colonies in and out of multiple, nutritionally poor crops per year may therefore be taking its toll.
NC State's (relatively minor) contribution to this overall research effort is to analyze a common set of CCD samples for the protein content of the bees (as a proxy of their nutritional stress during development) and the genetic origin of the bees (using established racial-screening analyses). Moreover, we will be analyzing a separate set of CCD samples for their potential lack of genetic diversity: there is emerging evidence that the overall genetic pool for honey bees in the United States is not as deep as it once was. This is probably not surprising, as much of the feral population has been decimated by varroa mites. It is possible that because commercial queens do not have as many unrelated drones to mate with as they did in the past, the decreased genetic diversity within the colonies may make them more vulnerable to disease. This research dovetails very nicely with our previous research, as well as a new USDA grant that we recently received to survey the "mating health" of commercially produced queens in the US, which will be a central theme to our research in the years to come.
The take-home message: CCD is likely a combination of several of these factors, which will make it difficult to pin down. Hopefully, researchers will be able to do so sooner rather than later. One thing is clear, however: while CCD has been making a lot of waves because of its mysterious nature, not all of our bees are dead (unlike what some of the media reports may portray) and only a minority of our bees are dying from the disorder. Thus we all need to continue our previous efforts to keep our colonies healthy and productive, and not lose sight of the other issues that we've been facing all along.
On the extension side of the program, our members have provided a total of 50 presentations to regional, state, and local beekeeping organizations, including 15 workshops or beekeeping field days. Moreover, it has been another record year for participation in the Master Beekeeper Program (MBP): an amazing 523 MBP participants have progressed within the program in the last 12 months, 457 of whom are totally new members, which is a 138% increase over the 10-year average. The program now officially has over 4,000 members (4,029 total) in its database, and more than half (2,202) have been active in the past 10 years. Congratulations to all the local chapters for your support of the program and your hard work!
We have also published 13 new or updated extension articles in the last year, including a comprehensive and publicly available CD-ROM on Africanized honey bees and their potential impact on North Carolina. These are in addition to the monthly online publications that review recent scientific research on honey bees and bee management, as well as other materials that have been posted on our web site. We have also been featured in 29 media stories in the last year, mostly, of course, on the issue of CCD.
Finally, we conducted our second annual apiculture training sessions for Cooperative Extension field faculty. The first was an introductory short course that covered basic honey bee biology and management, targeted towards those agents who would wished to put on a bee suit for the first time and work some hives. The second was a more advanced course that covered honey bee diseases and their treatments, targeted towards those agents who have a decent understanding of beekeeping but wished to have an update in disease control. Both were very well received, and we should be thankful that we have such committed and enthusiastic support from our Cooperative Extension county faculty.