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The plight of the honeybee

Nov 9, 2023
5 min Read
Eugene Curtin

Dogs get good press, but the truth is that humanity’s best friend is probably the honeybee, which pollinates fruits and vegetables and delivers, according to Statista, an online platform specializing in data collection, some 13.6 billion quarts of honey every year across the globe.

They do this despite being burdened by the parasitic varroa mite, human impact on their foraging environments, the disruption of their winter sleep patterns by warming seasons, their colonies constantly being trucked here and there to facilitate pollination, and, by no means least, agricultural dependence on pesticides.

Carol Fassbinder-Orth, PhD, professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is a big fan of the honeybee, and honeybees have reason to be a big fan of hers. Having grown up part of a beekeeping family in Elgin, Iowa, and today managing some 50 colonies of her own in Glenwood, Iowa, the buzz of the honeybee is decidedly part of the soundtrack of her life.

And so, as the bee’s best buddy, she has taken on the critical mission of understanding why their populations are declining so dramatically in the industrialized world and what might be done about it.

There is no substitute for the European honeybee, Fassbinder-Orth warns. While not native to North America, since the 17th century it has alone proven itself capable of multiplying in the numbers necessary to pollinate the foods necessary to sustain large human populations.

She recently visited New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, set some 400 miles off the coast of New Zealand, and the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia in the South Pacific. In these far-flung locations, where many of the practices damaging to bee populations are less intense and where the lethal varroa mite has not yet penetrated, Fassbinder-Orth monitored the health of honeybee colonies that experience much lower rates of loss than elsewhere in the world.

Carol Fassbinder-Orth
Carol Fassbinder-Orth, PhD, left, and Kaai Silbery, a beekeeper in the Chatham Islands, who is also the director of a local women-led beekeeping cooperative.

Her journeys are part of a yearlong sabbatical funded by Creighton’s Dr. George F. Haddix President’s Faculty Research Fund and by a program called Future Bees NZ, a government-funded program aimed specifically at studying the health of bees in New Zealand.

“I went to New Zealand because it’s the southern hemisphere, and the differences in seasonality allowed for interesting parallel comparisons to my American bee colonies, but also because they are one of the biggest exporters of honey in the world, and beekeeping is a very important industry,” Fassbinder-Orth says.

“Globally, if you look at honeybee health, and how many colonies are dying every year, the United States is among the worst in the world. I wanted to go somewhere that provided a stark comparison to see if improvements are possible.”

Honeybee Population Decline Longstanding and Complicated

The story of honeybee population decline, Fassbinder-Orth says, is longstanding and complicated, and while the use of pesticides is certainly part of the story, honeybees face many problems, not the least of which is the varroa mite. The varroa mite is a large parasite that inserts itself, pretty much inextricably, beneath the honeybee’s abdominal plate where it feeds on the fat that gives the bee life. This large parasite, she says, in a striking illustration, is the equivalent of a human being walking around with a squirrel constantly sucking its blood.

The varroa mite is an Asian mite, to which the Asian honeybee, she says, had long accustomed itself. But when, in the course of human commercial interaction, the mite in the late 1940s jumped to the European honeybee, it found a new, defenseless, host and has become a major source of colony devastation. It does not appear, Fassbinder-Orth says, that the varroa will be permanently dislodged by chemical or other means, so the European honeybee, like its Asian cousin, must learn to live with it. Given this bleak reality, it is perhaps unsurprising that the European honeybee sounds a bit dejected.

Honeybees hive microphone
The bee colonies in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. You can see the microphone cords hanging out of the front of the hives.

Fassbinder-Orth knows this because she listens to them. In collaboration with her daughter, Amara, a sophomore at Stanford University who in 2022 won a $50,000 science prize for her research into the sounds and acoustics of honeybee colonies, Fassbinder-Orth monitors the health of colonies by installing listening devices.

“Sound can tell us a lot about health,” she says. “Just like somebody’s voice, and how you can tell whether somebody is nervous or upset or sick in some way if you have a baseline of what they usually sound like, the same applies for bees.”

Fassbinder-Orth says her research suggests that a holistic approach to studying bees — detecting the presence of numerous fungal, viral and bacterial pathogens, the presence of the varroa mite, and the ailing sounds of an infected colony — can alert beekeepers three months in advance that a given colony is likely terminal.

An Urgent Question

The question is what to do with this early warning system. Is it possible, or might it eventually be possible, to intervene and save infected colonies? That is an urgent question, and one that Fassbinder-Orth says she hopes will be answered as her research advances.

The urgency is reflected in the numbers.

“Prior to the arrival of the varroa mite and these more intensive agricultural practices, the annual colony loss rate tended to be about 15%,” she says. “Now, annual loss rates can climb as high as 40% to 60%. In a good year, perhaps the loss is only 30%, but the numbers are significantly beyond what they were.

“In the Chatham Islands, and Mo’orea and New Zealand, those annual loss rates were lower. In New Zealand, the annual rate was 14%, but in the Chatham Islands and Mo’orea it was below 10%.”

So, what to do?

“We can’t get rid of the parasites,” she says. “We have chemicals that can reduce them, but it is very difficult to find something that completely kills the mite but doesn’t hurt the bee. The best option is that the bees learn to live with these parasites.

“We should incorporate integrated pest management into our farming practices, which is a broad-based approach that minimizes pesticide use and incorporates ecologically sound practices such as reintroducing naturally occurring predators that eat the bad insects.

“Pesticides are a short-term fix. If you keep using pesticides, you’re going to develop resistance, and then you need new pesticides, which is just not a sustainable process.”

The honeybee needs help, Fassbinder-Orth says, and a lot of it.

“They already have these parasites to deal with,” she says. “Maybe they can handle a parasite. But they can’t at the same time handle poor nutrition because their foraging environment is diminishing, or pesticides, or the stress of colonies being moved around for pollination purposes, or climate change. This is the bundle of problems that the honeybee is facing.”