Honey Bee Stress Leading to Colony Collapse Disorder

Barron mugshot 2013Honey bees – with a tiny brain the size of a sesame seed – can solve amazingly difficult problems (esp navigational challenges). Here is some research that suggests when young bees are stressed and sent out to labor too early – bee colonies collapse.

With their greater understanding of the collapse process, the authors are now exploring possible strategies to improve colony resilience including rescue packages for sick colonies, and new sensors to detect colonies at risk of failure.

– See MQU Article ‘Why stressed young bees’ early start to foraging can lead to colony collapse

Honey bee colony death rates are unsustainably high. While many stressors have been identified that contribute to this problem, we do not know why colonies transition so rapidly from a state of apparent health to failure. It is well known that individual bees react to nutritional and pathogen stresses by foraging precociously: our study explains how colony failure arises from the social responses of individual bees to stress. We used radio tracking to monitor performance of bees and found that workers who begin foraging prematurely perform very poorly. This compounds the stresses on the colony and accelerates failure. We suggest how colonies at risk can be identified early, and the most effective interventions to prevent failure.

– Research paper by Clint J. Perry, Eirik Søvik, Mary R. Myerscough, and Andrew B. Barron (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences): ‘Rapid behavioral maturation accelerates failure of stressed honey bee colonies


Colony Collapes Disorder
Colony collapse disorder causes significant economic losses because many agricultural crops (although no staple foods) worldwide are pollinated by western honey bees. According to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the worth of global crops with honeybee’s pollination was estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2005. Shortages of bees in the US have increased the cost to farmers renting them for pollination services by up to 20%. (ref Wikipedia)

Arguably the insect suffering involved here is in and of it self bad enough – though people listen when they hear about Colony Collapse Disorder – or how the loss of bee colonies effects peoples food supply lines (leading to more suffering). I’d be interested to know what Brian Tomasik and David Pearce thinks about this.


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  1. Thanks for the post. 🙂

    Increased stress presumably makes the affected bees worse off, although when a colony collapses, there will be fewer total bees, so the effect of collapse on overall suffering isn’t clear.

    Another, perhaps dominant consideration is that bees pollinate plants, so it’s possible that fewer bees will mean less plant growth. If this is true (is it?), it would generally be a good side effect from the standpoint of wild-animal suffering because fewer plants means smaller animal populations. This is counteracted to the extent that humans cultivate bees to help with pollination.

    1. Hi Brian, yes you could be right – though only a portion of plant life is of the flowering type – and some of those pollinate in ways other than through bee transmission. Perhaps the reduction in flowering plants would result in less plants at first, however other non-flowering plants would likely fill the exposed niches – perhaps some animals that directly rely on some of the flowering plants effected by less bees would die off, though others would likely expand in population size to fill those gaps. I really don’t know a whole lot about the particular chains in various ecologies that would be effected – being a dynamical system it might be very difficult to be confident. I speculate that removing bees would cause ecological destabilization and shifts that would cause suffering as the various sentient life adapts to new 1st, 2nd, 3rd order changes in conditions.

      To me it’s unclear that the whole process would actually reduce suffering – in fact the process might increase suffering.

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