Fred Scott, Jr.
(434) 295-4188

"Feeling The Sting"
Published: March 9, 2008

It was late afternoon when David Hackenberg returned to the 400 honeybee hives he had left nearly a month before near farm fields south of Tampa, Fla.

Since 1966 the Pennsylvania apiarist has been making his living trucking honeybees from Maine to Florida to pollinate everything from apples to zucchini. As he had done countless times before, he started generating smoke with a bee smoker to calm the bees so he could load the hives.

A few minutes into the task, Hackenberg made a startling discovery. What he found was so chilling that the date, Nov. 12, 2006, has become associated with the start of what many people are beginning to fear might be one of the most catastrophic disasters in the history of agriculture in the United States.

"I started smoking the bees, and all of a sudden I realized that we were basically looking at empty boxes," Hackenberg said recently via telephone from Florida. "They were full of honey, but there weren't any beetles or wax moths, which are two predators that start moving into a bee hive long before it's even dead.

"But the thing that really amazed me was that less than 75 yards away sat another guy's bees. There were probably 120 hives, and they were in fine shape.

"So here sits 400 empty boxes full of honey, and those other bees aren't even looking at this stuff. This was so weird, because honeybees are always looking for a free meal."

During the ensuing months the situation quickly escalated from weird to frightening. Scientists have named the phenomenon colony collapse disorder, but they still don't know for certain what's causing it.

On Tuesday [March 11, 2008] at 7 p.m. in the main building auditorium at Piedmont Virginia Community College, Hackenberg will speak on "Where Have the Bees Gone" The free program is being presented by Ballyshannon Fund Forum, which addresses issues related to farming, forestry, and rural life.

The mysterious ailment can have dire consequences for our food supply because of the vital role honeybees play. Without their pollination many types of nuts, fruits and vegetables won't bear, or their produce will be deformed in structure.

"One out of every three bites of food the American public puts in their mouth is derived from honeybee pollination," said Hackenberg, former president of theAmerican Beekeeping Federation. "That translates into $18 billion a year.

"If we can't produce the nuts, fruits, vegetables and all the other things that make our dinner tables look good, and the food taste good, we're in trouble. Even the alfalfa the cows eat to produce milk has to be pollinated by honeybees."

Hackenberg's business, based in Florida and Pennsylvania, relies on selling honey and renting honeybees to farmers to pollinate crops. He said he normally runs 3,000 to 3,300 hives. Last year he lost 70 percent of his hives largely because of CCD.

Hackenberg is not alone. The problem is affecting beekeepers throughout the country, some of whom have reported 90 percent loses.

"This year we got back up to around 2,400 hives, and we lost half of them," Hackenberg said. "And this is the way it is all the way across the country. You just don't have enough bees to get your numbers back up.

"And it's not only affecting us commercial guys. It's affecting the little sideline hobbyist and the guys who are producing the nuclei for starter hives.

"It's causing problems for people in the North who want to buy package bees to restock their hives in the spring of the year. If you didn't have your order in by Thanksgiving or Christmas time, you're not going to get any bees."

Nelson County beekeeper Glenn Clayton tries to maintain 150 hives on his Hungry Hill Farm. He attributes the loss of about 10 of his colonies to CCD.

"The reason I say that is because you go into the fall and you have a colony that's busting over, and has plenty of stores and plenty of bees in it," Clayton said one recent morning as a wood-burning stove worked to take the chill out of his no-frills office.

"We checked them all winter long and they were surviving. We went back in [last] March, and my son opens one that had been overflowing and the queen is on the top bar and she flies away.

"There's not another bee in that colony. Not one. And after this happens robber bees don't seem to want to go in and clean the excess honey out that's in there.

"Usually when bees find a hive that's susceptible to robbing they're going to go in and clean the excess honey right out in a heartbeat. But they don't seem to go back in these CCD hives, which is spooky."

The 75-year-old Clayton was just a kid when he discovered how fascinating honeybees are. He was amazed by how they worked together, were assigned different jobs and, perhaps above all, how they could bring in nectar and make honey out of it that tasted so good.

"I worked with a fellow who had bees, and he taught me what he knew about managing them," said Clayton, who sells about 10,000 pounds of raw honey a year and can't keep up with the demand.

"He became allergic to the bee stings and had to get rid of his hives, and you know where they went. This was back in the early 1960s and it was very simple to raise honeybees.

"We had no major problems back then with diseases and mites like we have today. Just look at this bee catalog here. It's full of medicines for the treatment of bees."

When Clayton and his wife, Joan, moved from New Jersey to Nelson County in 1983, he brought about 15 colonies of honeybees with him. It wasn't long before he was battling two deadly imported pests that were decimating both wild and domestic honeybee populations.

"In the early 1980s the tracheal mites arrived here in the U.S.," Clayton said. "Two or three years after that the varroa mites arrived, and together they really put a hurting on beekeepers and wiped out 99 percent of the wild honeybee colonies.

"You'd be surprised at the number of beekeepers who stopped doing it, because they didn't want to deal with these mites. Yes, there's other insects that will pollinate things, but they don't do the job a honeybee colony will.

"There's 40,000 to 60,000 honeybees in a colony, and during the height of the [nectar gathering] season they're working their hind ends off. They are out there en masse and doing the pollinating job that needs to be done."

When Hackenberg discovered the empty hives in 2006 he immediately raised the alarm and got scientists involved. Within a few days he was sending samples off to Pennsylvania State University, which is leading the effort to discover what is causing CCD.

After the mass disappearance in November 2006, Hackenberg and his son, who is in business with him, started putting two and two together. They realized the problem had actually surfaced two years prior, but they had dismissed it as an anomaly.

"We moved bees out of fields of blueberries in 2004, and found a third of the hives empty," Hackenberg said. "Those bees left for some reason unknown to us, but at that point we were glad we didn't lose the honey.

"Now we realize we started seeing this problem in the summer of 2004. When the scientists started looking into this the first thing they figured out was that the bees with this problem have immune systems that have broken down.

"Once their immune system is taken down, the bees aren't able to handle all the viruses and funguses they were once able to deal with."

Hackenberg said the arrival of CCD roughly coincides with the introduction of a new family of nicotinoid-based insecticides designed to ward off sucking insects.

"If you look at the literature on most of these nicotinoid systemic chemicals, they basically don't kill anything," Hackenberg said. "They break down the immune system, and cause some other virus or pathogen to wipe out the insects.

"Termites are colonized insects just like the honeybee, and their brains have the same number of receptors. If you look at the manufacturer's own research, and how they wipe out termites, they say it causes the insect to quit feeding.

"And it causes the immune system to break down, and memory loss in the brain so the insect can't find its way home. That's exactly what we're seeing happening with these honeybee colonies."

Hackenberg said these chemicals are quite safe around adult bees. But he and others feel the problem might be with the young bees.

"What we feel is happening is that they're bringing this stuff back to the hives in sub-lethal amounts," Hackenberg said. "It's in the pollen and maybe in the nectar and water, and they're feeding it to the young.

"We know it's in the pollen because scientists have found it there, and in the bee bread, which they feed to their young. So what we figure is happening is that it's causing birth defects in the bees, and eventually when stressful times come, whether it's cold weather or viruses, the bees can't handle it.

"Some of the worse problems in the country where bees have disappeared have been around golf courses and sod farms. They put on these chemicals, and then pour the water to it.

"Then this stuff runs off and gets into the ground water and goes into ditches. Bees drink a lot of water, and they carry it home with them."

Hackenberg said scientists at Penn State have been studying samples of pollen in their search to find the cause of CCD. He said what they have found is shocking.

"In samples of pollen the size of the tip of my little finger they have found 17 different insecticides, and 34 different fungicides and herbicides," Hackenberg said. "If that's all in one little sample of pollen, just think of what we're getting when we're eating food."

Hackenberg has appeared on television programs such as "60 Minutes" and "Good Morning America" to publicize the crisis. But he said he is growing increasingly frustrated by the sluggish response of the federal government in dealing with the situation.

"The American public needs to stand up and make some noise here," Hackenberg said. "They need to pick up their phones and call their senators and congressmen and tell them we have a severe problem here.

"This is our food supply we're talking about."

(Linked above to the original archive; reprinted here with permission)

Hackenberg's talk, "Where Have the Bees Gone" was held in the main building auditorium at PVCC. Several hundred people attended.

How can we help you? Contact us.