If the prize-winning 4-H essay of an Applegate boy is anywhere near the mark, the die-off of bees in the Rogue Valley and across the world may have a simple, common-sense solution.
Kelton Shockey, 13, says the bees are tuckered out and stressed from too much feeding on corn syrup and too much trucking around the country to pollinate orchards.
In his 1,300-word essay, which won him a $250 prize and publication in Beeline, a beekeeper's magazine, Kelton argues that harvesting all the bees' honey and feeding them corn or sugar syrup is weakening their immunity to natural pests and diseases.
"Is feeding the bees sugar the equivalent of feeding them 'junk food?' " Shockey asks in his essay. "... Corn syrup does not have any minerals in it, whereas honey is very high in minerals.
"Could our bees be becoming weakened from lack of minerals, making them prone to diseases and pests?"
Colony collapse disorder — in which bees leave the hive and don't come back — has been reported in the last two years in 35 states, Europe, Brazil and India and has wiped out the majority of hives belonging to several Rogue Valley beekeepers. The issue is especially threatening to humans because at least a third of our food requires pollinating by bees.
The home-schooled resident of Thompson Creek Road acknowledges the usual suspects in colony collapse disorder — pesticides, herbicides, loss of plant diversity and increase in diseases and parasites, especially the varroa mite — but makes a plea for the common-sense solution that bees were meant to live on honey and thrive in a familiar ecological niche.
"In nature, honey bees are a home-based society," he says. "For years a hive is one location. The colony lives on year after year like a well-functioning village. ... This 'village' idea does not exist in contemporary practice. Bees from other colonies can be introduced, swarms are discouraged and queens come from elsewhere. The colony is moved sometimes hundreds of miles.
"Does turning a very home-based agricultural species into a nomadic-based one contribute to spreading disease? Can the stress factor of movement from original location as well as mixing the populations of colonies cause the weakening of the hive?"
Shockey's essay, "Stay-at-home Bees: Some Thoughts on Conserving Pollinators," won first place in the American Beekeeping Federation National 4-H Essay Contest, where it was judged for accuracy, scope of research, creativity, conciseness and logical development of the topic, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service news release.
Shockey has learned about bees the hard way, losing hives to bears and winter freezes. He practices natural beekeeping, letting broods keep all the honey they need and making them build at least half their own honeycombs, so they develop strength and adaptability, he says. And, of course, they stay in their local habitat.
Large-scale commercial bee operators truck hives thousands of miles to the olive groves of California, then apple orchards of Washington and many other places. They take all the bees' honey, feed them sugar syrups or corn syrups and give them completed honeycomb foundations, eliminating that hive-building work, Shockey says.
"Perhaps we should observe the nature of the bee's behavior and design methods that will work with it to strengthen the hive," he suggests in his essay.
Kirsten Shockey, his mother and main teacher, is an avid student of nutrition and farming. She says, "Corn syrup is starving us. It's in so many foods. So why wouldn't it be starving the bees? It fills us and we think we're full but the body is still hungry."
She also says she suspects genetically modified organisms in pollen may be confusing bees and blocking tracking abilities that allow them to find their way home.
A team of scientists from the University of Montana, Penn State and U.S. Department of Agriculture in Virginia has been trying to find the source and cure of colony collapse disorder, but Jerry Bromenshenk of University of Montana, in an interview, said, "Nope, we don't know (the causes)."
However, after a survey of beekeepers this spring, Bromenshenk says he can safely disagree with Shockey — you can't blame the corn syrup.
Among beekeepers, he reports, about half used corn syrup and half didn't. The same goes for sucrose syrup and Drivert, a mixture of sucrose and fructose.
As for turning the bees into workaholics with long commutes, Bromenshenk says Shockey may have something.
"There's no hard data. Bees evolved to live in trees and trees don't move around. There's definitely been a dramatic increase in the frequency of trucking them around. They get trucked all the way across the U.S. It could be stressful," says Bromenshenk.
Colony collapse disorder could be a single issue, such as pesticides or toxins, Bromenshenk adds, or (as Shockey wrote) the accumulation of stresses, one piled on top of another.
Bromenshenk dismisses news stories implicating genetically modified organisms and cell-phone radiation as causes of colony collapse disorder, noting that the radiation story has since been retracted and that studies by his work group show genetically modified organisms to be a "highly unlikely" cause of colony collapse disorder.
Shockey doesn't pretend to have the final answers. He concludes his essay with this: "The problem must be acted upon, no matter what the solution. We as keepers and stewards of the bees must help them now if future generations are to experience the benefits of the honeybee. We must do all we can to insure the survival of these pollinators even if it means re-thinking the way we have approached the problem up until now."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.