The Case of the Missing Bees

A honeybee gathering nector

This post assumes the reader has a basic understanding of the role bees play in the reproductive process of plant life on Earth.  For those who do not possess this knowledge, I suggest it is time to have “that talk” with your parents.  Those readers who do have an understanding of the functioning of bees in the biology of plants may be aware of just how important bees are to our agricultural industry.

Honeybee transfering pollen

The two photographs shown above (courtesy of Retta) clearly show how pollens attach themselves to the body of the bee as the bee makes it’s rounds gathering nectar for the hive.  The pollens thus are transferred from plant to plant by the foraging bees, cross-pollinating the flowers and allowing the reproductive cycle of the plant to proceed.  Soon, the farmer will be able to harvest the fruits of this biological process, and we eventually are presented with the wonderful produce we have come to expect at our local grocery store.

In the wild, bees make their home in the hollows of trees, as fans of Winnie the Pooh will surely recall.  As farms grew from small subsistence plots to large industrial agricultural operations however, a problem arose.  The large farms required large fields, which necessitated the clearing of vast tracts of land.   This ultimately led to agricultural regions which were essentially devoid of trees suitable for bees to establish their hives.

Rental hives

To solve this problem farmers have turned to the services of commercial beekeepers.  The photograph above shows an orchard that is in bloom.  You can see that the grower has placed 2 dozen hives in the vicinity of the fruit trees.  Hive clusters such as this are rented from commercial beekeepers at the appropriate time of the year and scattered throughout the orchard, thus ensuring that the vital process of pollination will occur.

This year, a strange thing has been occurring, the significance of which has yet to be determined.  When commercial beekeepers across the country began opening their hives in order to grade them in preparation for the upcoming season, many discovered that the hives were empty!  No bees at all!  The hives had honeycombs and the honeycombs contained honey, but the bees had disappeared.  And I mean COMPLETELY disappeared.  Not even any bee carcases remained in or around the hives.  No one really understands what has happened yet, nor the extent of the problem.  Commercial beekeepers have been reporting the same type of disappearance across 20 states now, and the problem appears to be ongoing.

This would not be the first time that a massive die-off off honeybees has occurred.  The last major die-off that occurred was a result of parasitic mites that infested the bee hives.  In past events, however, the bees left behind evidence of the culprit which led to their demise.  Bee carcases could be found in and around the hive, and it was relatively simple for biologists to determine the cause of the reduction in the bee population.  Because of the lack of forensic evidence, entomologists have been unable to pinpoint what has transpired with this ongoing event.

Because there are no bodies left behind, there has been speculation about what types of problems could create this scenario.  One line of investigation revolves around the theory that some type of pesticide is having an effect on the neurological functioning of the bees, debilitating the amazingly complex navigational functions that the bee uses to located the hive.  Under this line of reasoning, the bees simply leave the hive on their usual rounds, but find themselves unable to navigate back to the hive.  But this would explain the plight of the worker bees, and does not adequately explain the absence of queens and drones from the hives.

There is much research underway to try and determine the cause and extent of this problem, which appears to be ongoing, serious, and wide spread.  One stumbling block to diagnosing the problem stems from the lack of data regarding the scope of the die-off.  Most commercial beekeepers are aware of the situation, and have reported their losses to appropriate agencies for investigation.  Commercial beekeepers comprise a small minority of the beekeeping universe, however.  The vast majority of beekeepers are individual hobbyists who might not be tapped in to the agencies and resources that are attempting to solve this mystery.  To be helpful, anyone who maintains one or more bee hives is encouraged to log on to the following web site to complete a survey at the following link:  National Bee Loss Survey

23 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Bees

  1. Hal – Maybe the bees have forgotten how to use Google Earth, Google Maps and Yahoo in order to pinpoint where their home is!

    What seems odd to me is that someone stayed around long enough to make the honey, and then they disappeared.

  2. Retta’s macro is amazing in it’s detail. Way to go!

    Have you picked up that this is a honeybee issue, and not affecting the myriad native bees, like masons, bumbles, and carpenters?

    At my blueberries today, it was mostly bumble and carpenter types rather than honeybees.

    I think I’ll make some more mason bee houses.

  3. My parents used to raise about 250 colonies of bees and me being a child at the time provided a lot of the labor. I hated the work but eating some freshly extracted white clover honey in the comb over homemade biscuits was to die for. Fortunately they sold their business their business to a fellow who bargained to leave them where they were until winter when he would pick them up. That summer the mites came and by the time he picked them up, there were only about 70+ hives left. I am anxiously awaiting the answer to the question of where the bees are disappearing too.

  4. Tjilpi – I used an image editing program called Firehand Ember to crop and resize the two bee photos that Retta took. It is a quick and easy program to use for simple tasks such as this, but has the disadvantage that it strips away the Exif header from the newly created file that it saves. The original file retains the header, but the new file that is saved lacks the header data.

    FC – As far as I have been able to determine, it is unknown whether other species of bees are affected by what is being called Colony Colapse Syndrome (CCS). Honeybees are considered to be a “canary in the coalmine” in that they can provide an early warning of environmental problems. The reason is that, unlike other insects, they are actively managed and monitored by humans, which enables us to see when these types of problems occur. After all, who would really notice if there were to be a die-off of sowbugs for instance. They might be disappearing, but since nobody monitors them, the fact might remain unknown for some time. This also pertains to wild native species of bees.

  5. Hal – I knew there would be a simple explanation as to why I couldn’t keep up my detective work! I’ll Google Firehand Ember.

    Your post on the bees also stimulated me to do some Googling.

    I have discovered that there are over 1,500 species of bees native to Australia – some of them stingless. Our last wipe out of bees was caused by a beetle imported from South Africa, the same beetle “infected” the south east of the US. Our native stingless bees were not affected by that invasion.

    The local apiarists have heard of your current problems.

    South Australian Apiarists Association president Ian Zadow said that the cause of the disorder is still being investigated. “At this stage they think it might be some kind of fungus… apparently they’ve got a team on it at the moment trying to get more insight into what’s actually happening. [But] definitely anything’s that new to the world is a big concern because it could end up here at some stage.” 27 Feb 2007.

  6. Sun Spots. There is a lot of work going on about Sun Spots. I first learned about them when I got my Ham Licence in 1987.

    Yesterdary I saw a TV program which suggested that beach strandings of whales increased when sun spot activity was high.

    I wonder if it might be having an effect on the bees as well?

  7. Yes, Sun Spots are doing this. Bees use the sun’s polarized light to navigate. Sunspots, for some unknown reason, is causing navigation problems. They can’t find the hive to return, they get lost, exausted, then eaten in the woods. This year the sunspot cycle is starting up again, 1000x stronger sunspots than ever before have observed by nasa. The cycle will peak in 2010 or 2011.
    The honeybee is doomed.
    It is being observed all over the world. Google search Bees missing china, then google search bees missing britian.

  8. Hello,

    can I use the first picture to create a happy new Jewish year greeting card for my family?
    no commercial use intended. If possible, I would love to credit the talented photographer.

    many thanks,


  9. Moran,

    You may certainly use the bee photograph for your Rosh Hashana greeting card.

    I have found about one hundred web sites using my photographs without permission, so I was surprised and appreciative to receive your polite request. Thank you so very much for taking the time to ask!

  10. Hi Hal.
    Your bee photos are absolutely amazing and have increased my respect all that much more for these marvelous little creatures.
    We humans have soo much to ‘learn/unlearn”…
    I’m writing to ask your permission to use one or possibly both bee photos for my website which I’m just getting ready to launch.
    I will be selling my own handmade beeswax candles and looking for a few photos to pretty up my site.
    Thank you!

  11. Carol,

    Sorry for the delay. Permission to use the photos as requested is granted, as per my e-mail response to you. Good luck in your new venture.

  12. thank you Hal!

    Just replied to your email.

    If you fwd me your address I’d be happy to ship you some of our quality candles for these beautiful photos (=

    Let me know how you’d prefer I acknowledge your pics on my website… eg. courtesy of…??…

    Best regards!

  13. I love all the information you have posted in your site about the bees, love the pictures too, I would like to use the pictures of your bees in my website, I have been trying to open the eyes and ears of people whom think that because they are so called vegans are not preoccupied with the worldwide disappearance of the honeybee, if they only knew that without the bees, plants, animals and humans will also disappear.
    I will also place your website with your permission under the pictures, to let people know where I got them, and let them know that this problem is worldwide, not a figment of my imagination, lol.
    Thank you, blessed be.
    Azul Marino

  14. Hi Hal, I stumbled across your website while looking for some photos for our local bee-awareness flyers. I would love to be able to use them; I think they catch the bees “softer side” and portray them as fuzzy flying teddy bears rather than menacing aerial assualt machines.

    Oklahoma, USA

  15. Hi, I would like to use the first photograph to illustrate a study I am about to publish in a scientific journal. Could you please direct me to the photographer to obtain a high resolution copy. I will give an appropriate credit in the figure of course. Many thanks!

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