bee diseases, Managed bees, bee health, one health, bumblebees, honey bees

From single bee diseases to a concept of One Health

Healthy bees – how do you define them? My approach has changed over the years. First, I was interested in single bee diseases, or more precisely, the impact of parasites on bees. With experience, it turned into a more complex approach, acknowledging connections. Over the years, I began to include also aspects that aren’t related to bee health at first glance. But let’s begin from the start.

Honey bee diseases – impacts on various levels

Bee health, in my opinion, often gets a too narrow definition. In the worst case, it’s handled as the absence of diseases. Maybe also the absence of intoxications. It’s mostly limited to the health of managed honey bees. In my opinion, this isn’t a good characterisation. It’s too focussed on the detail, losing track of the whole picture.

Let’s take a look at bee diseases. Obviously, we know most about honey bees, namely Apis mellifera, the European Honey Bee, now managed all over the world. Even in this case, the situation isn’t completely clear though. In most books, you will find a division into diseases of adult bees and those of the brood. This classification relies on the clinical symptoms, not on the life cycle of the pathogen or parasite. Varroosis, for instance, is mostly considered a brood disease. The causing parasitic varroa mite reproduces in the capped brood. But is it really a brood disease considering that the adult bees still suffer the consequences? And the whole colony does in the end?

Parasitized larvae develop into workers with a shorter life-span. In addition, the mite transmits viruses that show their symptoms in adult bees. The best-known example of this is the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). It’s named after the crippled wings we see in adult bees after the virus replicated in the mite. With high infestation/infection levels, the social structure of the whole colony suffers. Brood disease? Not that much.

From honey bees to other bees

Other than impacting various levels of honey bees (brood, adult bees and the whole colony), varroa mites are also a good example of how a single managed species may impact other insects. Infected honey bee foragers carry DWV with them. They leave virus particles on the flowers. Bumblebees and other bees then pick it up and get infected themselves. “When varroa mites are present, bumblebees have more DWV.” Lena Wilfert told me this last year when I interviewed her for a German beekeeping magazine. Though the mite infests only honey bees, it intensifies the viral infection in their colonies. Thus, more virus particles get on the flowers and may infect bumblebees.

We also know that solitary bee species may get DWV, too. But until now, we don’t know much about the impacts on the population level. If a solitary bee female hatches with deformed wings, it isn’t able to forage and build nests. How’s the prevalence in different bee populations? Does it depend on the density of honey bee colonies in an area? In Wilfert’s opinion, managed honey bees should stay outside of nature reserves to protect other bee species. The most controversial conclusion of her research.

Bee diseases and habitat

“Generally speaking, we need more habitat for bees. That would be good for all of them.” Wilfert closed the interview last year. I couldn’t agree more. This also brings in a different aspect: bee nutrition. As I outlined in my last post, bee nutrition is an overarching principle of bee health. Bee diseases develop less harshly if their hosts are well-nourished. Again, we know this from honey bees. It seems sensible that this is true also for other bee species.

Bees need diverse habitats, with flower diversity and enough structures to build their nests in. In addition, diverse pollinator communities (not only bees) support plant diversity and pollination quality in agricultural crops and wild plants.

Did you notice something? Coming from a complex honey bee disease and passing by non-managed bee species, I arrived at crop pollination. What I drew out in a linear form, in reality, is a complex system. Maybe you can visualize it as a net, with varroosis connected with several other factors at different levels. A 3D-net, so-to-speak. This is also more or less how my approach to bee health has changed over the years. From a linear process to a complex system.

One Health – one part stands for the whole system

This is why I like the One Health approach so much. It makes the connection between human health, (managed) animal health and “ecosystemic health”.  At the moment we see the connection very clearly, due to the pandemic we’re in. Covid-19 is a zoonosis, a spill-over from wild animals to humans. It’s connected to biodiversity and habitat loss, to not respecting ecosystemic health. It could have started anywhere, despite the messages some leaders of large countries are sending. I just hope we learn the lesson.

You may wonder how I got from bee diseases to Covid-19. Well, this isn’t that disconnected as you might think. Bee diseases are another element in the 3D-net I talked about. A part of ecosystemic health. In case of problems, you have to zoom in to identify the problem and a possible solution. Then do the work and zoom out to look at the whole system again. Figure out what else could have an influence, go back in. Step by step, understanding the system. This is an approach that takes time. It’s why science takes time. And why the solution may seem simple at the end, but the way to get it is a dynamic process.

Using the systemic approach for bee health

I use this approach in my work. What I want to stand for is bee health in a broader sense, though I’m often in the “zoomed-in” state. I help to develop varroa treatments, and at the same time, I teach beekeepers that treating their colonies helps also other insects. I also teach vets to consider the superorganism honey bee colony and to not forget the transmission of honey bee diseases to wild insects. Zoom in – zoom out.

In agricultural studies, I monitor that the effects of pesticides are assessed correctly. On the other hand, I promote the creation of bee habitat to enhance bee nutrition and mitigate the effects of intense agriculture and bee diseases. Zoom in, zoom out. Things are connected, not isolated from each other.

Finally, in science communication, I try to show the nuances. I do it in this blog, in my talks and courses. My frequent answer “it depends” may be frustrating at first, but I’m convinced that making complexity accessible is better than simplifying. I love helping people to perceive the nuances, see the greys and the colours beyond black and white. The world is more interesting this way, I believe. Healthier, too.

So, if you agree with this and want to know more about working with me, write me a comment on this post or contact me by email. I’ll be happy to figure out together with you how this approach could serve you.  

2 thoughts on “From single bee diseases to a concept of One Health”

  1. Kirsten Cook

    Hello! I agree with your approaches to beekeeping completely. I also believe that commercialization of honeybees can lead to collapse. I am a small hobby beekeeper and I don’t like to medicate my bees. I will if I have to, but I would prefer not to. I am in an isolated area with no other hives around for a few miles. (I’m on a small peninsula surrounded by a lake and fields of peas or canola (this year its peas)). So I’m hoping I don’t have other bees over lapping my bees forage zones. I am in northern Alberta and we have long harsh winters. I do make sure my bees have enough honey or syrup before winter comes. I haven’t noticed any issues with my bees, they are very strong and build comb and honey very fast! We do have a biodiversity of plants and shrubs since we live in a small subdivision. We have a ton of willow and aspen along the lake shores as well as many shrubs of Saskatoon berries and a selection of clover and alfalfa in our fields. The dandelion bloom was spectacular this year. I’m thinking this has a lot to do with the health and strength of my hives after I have read your article.

    We own a rammed earth Construction company and we live in a passive solar rammed earth home. We have placed the bee hives right near our home on the south facing wall that is sheltered from the wind by a retaining wall (with a deck, which is supposed to be our atrium eventually). I noticed the bees did very well in this spot over the winter. The hive kept protected from wind and nice and warm against this wall, since it does hold thermal mass! Which is awesome.

    Thank you for your insight and sharing your knowledge on the health of our honey bees and native bees ❤️.

    1. Claudia Garrido

      Hi Kirsten, thank you for your kind comment! That sounds as if your colonies had plenty to chose from. Good nutrition will surely help them to resist diseases. And that spot on a South facing wall is a good one for the conditions you have during winter in Alberta. Honey bees aren’t naturally distributed that far North (nor are they in North America, as you know).
      I do agree on the aspect that commercialization in dimensions like in North America is part of the problem. The number of colonies that larger operations have absolutely surpasses the threshold for good practices. The largest operations here in Europe would be small to medium-sized operations in North America. However, the core of the issue is bad practices, not that much commercialization per se. I know hobby beekeepers that don’t care at all about anything other than the last drop of honey they could possibly harvest. And I know commercial beekeepers with absolutely perfect practices and health management. It’s about the commitment, not about the form of beekeeping.
      A word about medications: these are tools, nothing else. And like every tool, they have to be used in the right way. The principle is: as much as necessary, as little as possible. For honey bees, safe treatments are available only against varroa. Which isn’t natural at all, its natural host is an Asian honey bee species, Apis cerana. In my opinion, it’s in the responsibility of every beekeeper to treat their colonies against this parasite. In the right way. Especially, considering the disease transmission to other bee species, which is increased when varroa mites are present. And they are everywhere. Your isolated site may give you some air, but it doesn’t save you from this parasite. I always say, when you see varroa mites, it’s already too late.
      And you may be isolated from other beekeepers, but you aren’t from other bee species. In North and South America this is even more important because honey bees aren’t native. But you have a rich native bee fauna, which may get the viruses and other diseases honey bees leave on flowers. In my opinion, this is another responsibility of beekeepers.
      This is the time to care about this, I’ll be sharing info on LinkedIn about this. Good luck with your bees!

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