What is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?

By Howland Blackiston

In the autumn of 2006, a beekeeper in Florida filed the first report of a sudden and unexplained disappearance of his bees. They didn’t die. They just packed up and left. More reports of heavy losses (mostly from commercial migratory beekeepers) quickly followed. In subsequent years, beekeepers have reported losing anywhere from 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives.

Like a firestorm, this tragedy has swept across nearly all of the United States as well as some countries overseas. It has affected both commercial beekeepers and hobbyists. It is a far-reaching problem that has serious consequences.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is characterized by the sudden and unexplained disappearance of all adult honey bees in the hive, usually in the fall. In one scenario, a few young bees and perhaps the queen may remain behind while the adults disappear. Or in another scenario, there may be no bees left in the hive. Honey and pollen are usually present, and there is often evidence of recent brood rearing. This abrupt evacuation is ordinarily highly unusual because bees are not inclined to leave a hive if there is brood present.

Another puzzling characteristic is that opportunists (such as robbing bees from other hives, wax moths, and small hive beetles) are slow to invade colonies experiencing CCD. There are no adult bees present to guard the hive and lots of goodies to loot, yet these invaders stay clear. Hmmm. What do they know that the beekeeper doesn’t?

Sometimes (rarely) bees abscond from a hive because conditions are too unpleasant to remain in the hive: too hot, too many pests, not enough food, no queen, and so on. But CCD is different from such absconding. Conditions don’t appear to be unfavorable. And it’s happening at an alarming rate.

Colonies that experience CCD have the following characteristics:

  • All or nearly all of the bees pack up and leave within a two- to four-week time period. But there are no dead adult bodies.
  • In some instances the queen and a small number of young-aged survivor bees are present in the brood nest. There are no or very few dead bees in the hive or at the hive entrances.
  • Capped brood is left behind.
  • There is stored pollen and capped honey.
  • Empty hives are not quickly invaded by opportunists (robbing bees, wax moths, small hive beetles, and so on).