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Endangered Oregon: The Vanishing Honey Bee

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Oceanscape Network youth volunteer Tabby Keefer looks a little nervous.

Tabby’s trudged through the mud in search of ghost towns and sailed the choppy Oregon Coast, but she’s never had an experience quite like the one she’s preparing for at the Oregon State University’s (OSU) Honey Bee Lab in Corvallis.

Dr. Ramesh Sagili, the associate professor in charge of the lab, is helping Tabby suit up in protective clothing which includes a thick white jacket, heavy gloves and a wide-brimmed hat draped with netting. Once she’s fully geared up, graduate students Cameron Jack and Jared Jorgensen lead her across a small field toward several white boxes sitting beneath some trees. The drone of bees grows louder, becoming a roar as Tabby steps within arm’s length of the boxes. Already scores of the insects are circling around her, some of them impacting with her protective clothing as they attempt to chase the intruders away. Cameron uses a smoke dispenser to help calm the insects while Jared opens one of the boxes to reveal a dark interior surging with life.

“It was definitely a unique experience,” Tabby told the Network after spending nearly an hour with the bees. “I had no idea what to expect because I think I’m a little nervous around bees. But seeing how complex their hive was — that was cool. How many people get to see something like that every day?”

Understanding Colony Collapse

Although the visit to the hives was exhilarating, Tabby came to OSU to learn about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which has killed millions of bees nationwide over the last seven years, often wiping out entire populations.

Although incidents of colony collapse have been recorded as far back as the nineteenth century, often under various names. However, the phenomenon has drastically increased in the last seven years. It now poses a distinct threat to wild bee populations and the role they play in the natural environment as well as the agriculture industry which relies heavily on these tiny pollinators. Different parts of the country have reported varying levels of colony collapse, with some areas reporting as high as a 90% death rate. Dr. Sagili says Oregon is lower than the national average at 22%, but any substantial loss of bees will have a ripple effect on the environment, on crops and on other animals.

Thanks in part to the research Dr. Sagili is doing at the Honey Bee Lab, scientists now know that CCD is the result of many environmental factors working together. Sagili told the Network that there are five major factors which contribute to colony collapse:

Pests and pathogens. These naturally occurring factors may not always cause a colony to collapse, but they have a more destructive effect when bees are already under stress from the other factors listed below. Common examples of these hazards includes a fungal infection called Nosema and the Tracheal Mite parasite.

Malnutrition due to a lack of a diverse diet. As agriculture and urbanization have altered or destroyed natural ecosystems, native plants which provide food for bees have dwindled. As a result, many colonies now suffer from chronically malnourished bees.

Pesticides and fungicides. Many of the chemicals we use to kill pests on our crops or in our yards are indiscriminate and may cause widespread casualties among bees. Recent media attention about the affect of pesticides on bees has encouraged some large home and garden stores to stop selling bee-killing poisons.

Stress caused by migration. When bees are forced to move from their territory by human activity, it can cause stress to the entire colony. Stress weakens the immune system, which makes the bee more susceptible to illness, less able to contribute to the hive, and easier prey for predators.

Lack of genetic diversity. Most honeybees in the United States are non-native European honey bees. Since the European honey bees originated from a limited gene pool, interbreeding has decreased the lack of diversity needed to maintain populations resistant to pests and pathogens. 

How You Can Help

The conservation of our bees isn’t (and shouldn’t be) just the concern of scientists. Part of Dr. Sagili’s job is to provide extension services which include developing solutions and educational materials about CCD in the hopes that farmers, apiarists, and the public at large will work together to reverse this disturbing trend.

Dr. Sagili told Tabby that people of all ages can help bees simply by providing them with appropriate food sources.

“Bees can fly a three mile radius, which is 27 square miles in which they will forage,” he said. “You may not have any effect over what kinds of pests or pathogens are around you, but at least you can have some say on what kind of diet your bees can get.”

The two best ways to accomplish this are to use native plants in your yard or put out artificial proteins. The OSU Honey Bee Lab has developed a variety of educational materials which can be useful is designing your home bee program.

“This is a particular conservation project that teens can work on just in their daily lives,” Tabby said after reflecting back on her visit to the lab. “You can do so much just by talking to your parents about what plants are in your yard and how you can keep pests away without hurting bees.”

Related Features: Youth Activities: Conservation Projects | Endangered Oregon: Return of the Gray Wolf | Endangered Oregon: The Northern Spotted Owl and Old Growth Forests | Endangered Oregon: Diver and Survivor

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Endangered Oregon: The Vanishing Honey Bee

Oceanscape Network youth volunteer Tabby visits the Oregon State University Honey Bee lab to better understand the phenomenon of bee colony collapse and how you can help save these important insects!

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