We're a little crazy, about science!

Colony Collapse Disorder and Pesticides, Or Save the Bees!

Die hard, the bee version.

Bees, who needs them? They are scary, they sting and they seem to find magical ways into your securely locked home. I’m not bias, even though I run screaming like a little girl when I see one… okay maybe a little. But as it turns out we need the bees!! Who knew, right? After the colony collapse that came out of nowhere and could not be explained [at the time] everything from global warming to government conspiracy was being blamed. But now a new study helps strengthen the cause of the collapse.

Two widely used insecticides– in the class called neonicotinoids [for those of you who think you will be tested on this at the end]– appear to do significant damage to honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly in bad winters [hello global warming, I’m looking at you].

The new study, from the Harvard School of Public Health [or HSPH] replicated a 2012 finding [from the same group of researchers], the original study found the link between low doses of imidacloprid and Colony Collapse Disorder [or CCD]. This new study not only found the same link, but it also found a second insecticide which caused the bees to exhibit this behavior, low doses of clothianidin had the same negative effect on the bees.

[Loony Hint: In Colony Collapse Disorder, bees abandon their hives over the winter just to die eventually. Originally no one understood what was causing this problem, but it could wipe out as much as 90% of the affected hive.]

The team also offered proof that a popular alternate explanation was incorrect. That explanation suggested that CCD may have come from bees’ reduced resistance to mites or parasites as a result of exposure to pesticides. This new study however, found that bees in the hives exhibiting the CCD behavior had almost identical levels of pathogen infestation as the control group.

[This is a very good example showing why you need to have a control group to compare your research against by the way.]

This suggests that the neonicotinoids are causing some other type of biological mechanism in bees that leads to CCD. This makes sense considering the method of action for neonicotinoids and that low doses typically will not kill insects. Bees are, after all insects, so the study really shows that this class of insecticide induces that alternate [CCD causing] behavior in bees.

[Loony Hint: For those who didn’t read the link, neonicotinoids work because they bind to a receptor in insect brains, a receptor humans have as well, it is the receptor nicotine binds to, the key difference is that it does not detach in insect brains like it does human brains. This causes paralysis and eventually death because it permanently blocks the receptors]

“Although we have demonstrated the validity of the association between neonicotinoids and CCD in this study, future research could help elucidate the biological mechanism that is responsible for linking sub-lethal neonicotinoid exposures to CCD,” said author Chensheng (Alex) Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at HSPH. “Hopefully we can reverse the continuing trend of honey bee loss.”

Colony Collapse Disorder caused untold loss in crops, bees are responsible for pollinating roughly 1/3 of them and not being able get the bees needed to pollinate crops means a shortage of food in an already delicate balancing act given population size.

Sure, save the whales, save the sharks, heck let’s save those cute little dolphins as well, but maybe we should save the bees while we are at it too.

In an interesting side note, increasing bee diversity when pollinating crops will yield a higher return, suggesting that we should not just save the bees, but make sure that we have as many kinds pollinating crops as possible.

Mastered Organic Chemistry? [You liar, no one does] Well you probably want the full study, which you can find — here! And if you want the second study on bee diversity you can find that —here!


Lu C. (2014). Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder, Bulletin of Insectology, 67 125-130. DOI:

Rogers S.R., Tarpy D.R., Burrack H.J. & Blenau W. (2014). Bee Species Diversity Enhances Productivity and Stability in a Perennial Crop, PLoS ONE, 9 (5) e97307. DOI:


5 responses

  1. the Harvard studies are poorly handled and highly criticized by peers including scientific leaders in the beekeeping space including Randy Oliver.

    May 12, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    • Well that’s my foot in my mouth, usually I do better research than that. Thanks for sharing that information.

      May 12, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  2. How many times have we seen scientists with an agenda, manipulating results to fit a pre-determined hypothesis.

    August 5, 2014 at 2:15 am

  3. Honey and Honeybee populations dropping because of colony collapse disorder is frightening to me.

    Is this from the transportation of the bees or monocultures or is it being caused by pathogens and parasites or even electromagnetic radiation and a proliferation of genetically-modified crops?

    I am betting that it is mostly from Neonicotinoids which are a popular insecticide used and that is being tracked as being closely related in area to collapsing bee colonies

    August 5, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    • norman

      CCD isn’t affecting bees these days and the extreme 70% die-offs are not happening like they did in the early to mid 2000’s. That said, bees these days are still having less intense roughly 30% die-offs due to mite infestation. If the current hypothesis that CCD was caused by a microscopic parasite (nosema) holds up, then both issues were largely compounded by the transportation of bees across the country. In January / February, bees from all parts of the country are shipped in to pollinate almonds in California and that causes bee diseases and pests to spread faster throughout the country.
      The mite die-offs certainly make it harder to raise bees, but its not the sensational disaster that the media raises. What you don’t hear is that the while a 30% dieoff sounds extreme, colonies that survive the winter normally swarm multiple times the following spring and summer (with each swarm creating a new colony). Breeders that breed queens can make hundreds of queens with just a few colonies as well.
      The best news is that many wild bees have been discovered to have recently naturally adapted resistance to both nosema and mites and are doing well these days (in areas where they have adequate foliage).
      Neonic pesticides are definitely not having a big influence on bee populations. Normally it is applied as a seed coating on a seed when it is planted and that is beneficial because unlike other pesticides that are sprayed into the environment (and potentially on blooming plants full of bees), the seed-coated treatments prevent this sort of exposure. Neonic pesticides (as their name applies) is a chemical related to nicotene, a natural insecticide produced in tobacco plants (that unfortunately we smoke). All pestcides are insecticides, but neonic pesticides (as a seed treatment application) are one of the most compatible with bees and bees thrive in places like North Dakota foraging directly on bloom in fields of neonic seed-treated canola. Theres still a lot of older generation pesticides out there (i.e. organophosphates, etc) that are toxic to both vertebrates and insects and get sprayed all over the environment.
      Monocultures (especially corn) are a big issue with bees. Unfortunately in last decades push for corn-ethanol, many non-tilled fields were converted to corn. The problem there is that corn doesn’t provide nectar for bees and they tend to avoid most kinds of corn pollen as well (which is only available for a couple weeks a year). Bees need to find constant forage in the warm months to thrive. In areas where its only miles of corn all around, they can’t do that.

      August 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm

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