On Dec. 4, 1872, the British-American merchant brigantine Mary Celeste was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean apparently abandoned by its crew, despite the fact that it was seaworthy and remained under sail.
Plenty of food was aboard and the crew’s personal belongings were undisturbed. What had occurred is considered the greatest maritime mystery of all time.
Quite appropriately, in England what has been happening since 2006 to many honeybee colonies has been termed the Mary Celeste Syndrome. As in the maritime affair, something unknown has caused bees to abandon their hives. Here in North America, we have instead called this phenomenon colony collapse disorder (CCD) or spontaneous hive collapse.
Although beekeepers always expect losses in colony populations, especially over winter, these losses have recently reached in some cases 30 percent to 90 percent. According to the Agricultural Research Service, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive but with a live [but untended and dying] queen and no dead honeybee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive and immature bees are present.”
Similar losses have happened in the past. What was then called disappearing disease or mystery disease occurred in 1918 and 1919 and again in 1965. Now, however, the losses have continued at the level of almost a third of our honeybee population.
So who cares? There is less chance now of being stung and we can substitute jam for honey. Such a short-sighted view fails to take into account the very important role that honeybees play in pollinating our crops. While honey remains a product of beekeeping, pollination is far more important. For example, our apple orchards in New York State require about 30,000 hives. Cucumbers, squash, melons, strawberries and many other crops are also pollinated by bees. In Szechuan, China, people have had to use feather dusters to pollinate pear trees because of the loss of bees.
Other bee species have a role to play as well – for example, bumblebees are used in many greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes – but honeybees remain the primary commercial pollinator.
Although some studies have implicated pesticides called neonicotinoids, and others have indicted mites and even cellphones, in 2012 the ARS reported: “During the past five years, numerous causes for CCD have been proposed and examined, a number of which appear to have a high correlation with the pattern of CCD incidents. However, it has become increasingly clear that no single factor is responsible for the syndrome. In addition, research has not been able to determine whether all cases of CCD are caused by the same set of factors or the same factors in a particular combination.”
So, as with the Mary Celeste, the mystery remains unsolved.
While attention has been focused on CCD, much else has been happening in the bee world. A study at the University of Bristol has found that bees can sense a flower’s electrical field, which aids them in their choice of preferred flowers. These electrostatic forces also cue the flower’s pollen to be drawn to the bee.
And interest has developed in wild bee colonies. According to Geoffrey Mohan, writing in the Los Angeles Times, “Not only are they cheaper, they fertilize blossoms with much greater efficiency, new research shows. After observing bees in hundreds of fields on multiple continents, scientists calculated that free-living bees were twice as effective as domesticated honeybees at prompting flowers to produce fruit. In addition, the proportion of flowers that matured to fruit improved in every field visited by wild insects, compared with only 14 percent of fields visited by rented honeybees, according to a report published online by the journal Science.”
You can learn much more about activities related to these beneficial insects at next weekend’s Honeybee Festival. Saturday’s program at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. At 11, Thomas Seeley of Cornell will talk about his studies that led to his book “Honeybee Democracy,” and at 1 p.m. Barbara Ochterski will speak about backyard beekeeping.
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Seeley will speak at the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in Java. His topic: “The Bee Hive as a Honey Factory.”