Note: For the next few days I’ll be reporting from Eco-Farm, the annual conference held by the Ecological Farming Association of California. At Eco-Farm, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference hall an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk farming amid the dunes.

Long-time California bee keeper Randy Oliver gave an interesting session on apiary in an age of colony-collapse disorder.

According to Oliver, “everything you’ve heard in the media about colony collapse is wildly exaggerated or wrong.” He says there’s no reason to go looking for a single explanation for the phenomenon; in reality, bees are under pressure from several well-known quarters.

He cites four main factors which, combined, explain the severe pressure on bee populations. He says the four have all risen in the last 30 years — too quick for bees to adapt. Here they are:

  • Loss of forage. Oliver said that widespread use of herbicides has been devastating for bees. He credited Roundup Ready corn and soy — Monsanto’s flagship seed products that now cover a massive swath of the country — with wiping out a huge source of bee food. “Corn pollen isn’t very nutritious for bees,” he said. “But the weeds that used to grow between the rows was.” He also mentioned vast monocrops in general — like California’s almond groves. “Those trees desperately need bees for pollination two months out of the year,” he said. “The rest of the year, it’s scorched earth — no forage for bees.”
  • The rise of tracheal mites.
  • The rise of vorroa mites, which appeared in the U.S. in the early 1990s. This problem intensified when industrial growers turned to highly toxic miticides to treat the problem — compromising the immune systems of their own bees and creating pesticide-resistant “supermites.”
  • Nosema ceranae, a bee parasite that’s caused die-offs in other parts of the world. “That’s what I think has triggered the latest die-off,” he said.

Oliver says there is no silver bullet for fighting this multicausal problem — just good stewardship that focuses on building bees’ immune systems and breeding them for parasite resistance.

“I asked bee breeders whether they had seen a spike in demand for mite-resistant bees,” he said. “They had among hobby growers, but among commercial growers, they hadn’t. Those guys want a silver bullet.”