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What is Colony Collapse Disorder ft Ben of the BIP Tech Team

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Show Notes

Join Nicole and Ben of the BIP Tech Team as they talk about Colony Collapse Disorder, current beekeeping trends, and what is the BIP Tech Team.

What You’ll Learn

  • What is the BIP Tech Team
  • What is the Sentential Hive program
  • What is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
  • Current Beekeeping Trends

Our Guest

Ben is the Honey Bee Health Field Specialist for the Pacific Northwest, along with migratory beekeepers from around the region and helps monitor diseases, pest loads, and colony health. Most of Ben’s experience with commercial beekeeping comes from time working with BIP in Northern California (2013-2017), where he helped queen breeders select stock and test for hygienic behavior.

Ben finds it fascinating to observe and compare the different management strategies used by commercial beekeepers in the western US and had learned there are many different ways to run a successful commercial operation.

He is especially interested in Varroa control, and brood disease identification and treatment. Ben’s interest in bees began much earlier working on the family apiary/organic vegetable farm in Wisconsin and became further immersed while caretaking the farm for a couple of years and managing the hives.

Ben works with commercial migratory beekeepers and provide data on their colonies and recommendations aimed at improving bee health.

BIP Tech Team

The technical transfer specialists of the Bee Informed Partnership provide independent colony health assessments, colony sampling, full pest and pathogen diagnostics, and reporting of assessments.

They deliver emergency response kits to operations of any size to assist in investigating reasons for failing colonies. BIP promotes and manages a large, national Sentinel Apiary program where we encourage beekeepers from each state to monitor health metrics and colony weight to add to the national database.

They will investigate relationships between forage, nectar flows, and diseases. The nonprofit works directly with industry and researchers to set up, test, and analyze field trials of new feed or treatment products. BIP continues to annually survey beekeepers of all operational sizes for winter, summer, and annual losses as well as collect and make available management practices that are associated with increased survivorship.

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    Episode #055: Improving Honey Bee Health For Backyard Beekeepers and Varroa Mite Treatment ft Dr Dennis vanEngelsdorp


    Announcer: 0:01

    Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from when we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living, and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.

    Nicole: 0:17

    Good morning, everybody. And thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host, Nicole. And today we're joined by Ben, who's part of the Bee Informed Partnership Tech Team. In fact, he's a honeybee health specialist. And so he's going to talk to us about the BIP Team and his role as a health specialist. So Ben, thank you so much for joining me today.

    Ben: 0:39

    Thank you, Nicole. Happy to be with you this morning.

    Nicole: 0:41

    Yeah, I know that you've been keeping busy with everything, the almond pollination in California. So I know you've had a long week, and I appreciate you taking the time out to do this. Hopefully, it's maybe a little bit of a break in what you've been doing. So can you tell us a little bit more you know about what the actual Bee Informed Partnership is and what the heck is a Tech Team? And what is a honeybee health specialist?

    Ben: 1:06

    Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So the Bee Informed Partnership is pretty much a collaboration between a number of different universities and we work with commercial beekeepers, and backyard beekeepers and hobbyists. But the Tech Transfer Team is the branch of the Bee Informed Partnership that works directly with commercial beekeepers, and we go out into the field. We do full colony health assessments. We're looking at colony health metrics, we take samples of the bees for looking at parasitic mites, the Varroa mite, we look at different pathogens, and then we give that data back to the beekeepers and show them you know, in ways that they can prove their bees health. Yeah, we're the boots on the ground that detect transfer teams. So there's five of us, actually, maybe six of us now spread out around the country. There's five different hosting universities. So I work out of Oregon State University and Corvallis but my region includes Washington, Idaho, Montana. And then I go come into California here during almond bloom, which has been the last month. And we work closely with the commercial beekeepers and try to figure out what their needs are, and give them data on how their bees look compared to, you know, their peers and give information and how they can maybe make small improvements. You know, small improvements can make a big difference when you follow the hives.

    Nicole: 2:23

    Sure. And so is this something that is like grant funded? Or do they pay for it? Or do you guys do it in partnership with being able to use the data for a researcher? Or how does that work?

    Ben: 2:34

    Yeah, pretty much all of the above. So we're kind of a hybrid organization in that way. So the beekeepers are paying in, they paying a buy in fee at the beginning of every year. And then they get a subsidized fee schedule for the services that we provide. So about half of our income is coming right from the beekeepers. And we also do get some grant funding. So we have a grant writer on our team who's always looking for grants. We do get some funding from the corporate world who they make donations. But it's a small percentage, but it helps. And then we're also doing more product trials where a company will approach us as an independent third party to do some trials on products or feed supplements that they'd like to test out in the real world environment. So we've been testing this last year, we've had a couple trials, testing of probiotic supplements, which there's been a great interest in those recent years and hopes that those are going to help fight some of the diseases that the bees get. So we're just wrapping that up and still crunching the numbers. I don't have any results to share with regards to that. And we're also doing a shed trial which is looking at the winter storage of bees in sheds. This has been going on for many decades in Idaho where they've used old potato sheds to store the bees overwinter and it gives them a break. It's a controlled environment. very trendy right now, a lot of beekeepers looking at that. So we have been involved in a trial in collaboration with Washington State University to look at the benefits or any drawbacks of storing bees in sheds. So that's, you know, they're contracting with us to do all the field work for those trials. So yeah, our funding is coming from all different ways for all different sources. And we're continuing to grow our program by adding new beekeepers in. We also have a Sentinel Apiary Program, which is still in its early stages. But that's more of a citizen science initiative, where we're getting backyard beekeepers to you know, join the program and put in data for us. There's a small charge for that. So we're getting some revenue from that as well. But it's a way for people that have a few hives in their backyard to get involved with the Bee Informed Partnership.

    Nicole: 4:32

    So I imagine that the majority of our listeners are probably hobbyists, or at least smaller scale. I don't imagine too many commercial beekeepers listen. So can you tell us a little bit more about the Sentinel Program? What kind of work does that take from the beekeeper? How much does it cost? How do they participate?

    Ben: 4:52

    Sure, so the Sentinel Program it goes on for about six months out of the year, and it involves the beekeeper or I'm taking their own samples from their colonies, once a month for six months from May to October. Basically, you have to have at least five colonies because we have two programs here, there's the four colony program and then there's an eight colony program but you should have another extra one or two in case one dies, you have replacement. So if you have one or two hives, maybe you need to grow a little bit before joining the Sentinel Program. But for four colonies, it is $275 for the year for eight colonies, it's $499. And then so we'll send you the sampling equipment, the measuring cup and all the sample bottles, the boxes and the data sheets. So every month you're going out into the hives, and it's kind of a way to kind of force you to get into the hives. I think most beekeepers are getting into their hives at least once a month but a lot of participants tell us that it's nice to have this reminder that it's time to sample for the Sentinel so they so they get into the hives probably more than they would normally and we have a number of prompts, asking them to look at, you know, number of frames of bees so to quantify the population in the hive. And we asked them to look at any signs of disease, they take a sample of bees is about 300 bees, less than half a cup of bees, which, you know, it sounds like a lot of bees, but really it's a tiny percentage of the total population at hive. Those bees are sacrificing their lives for the cause of science. So we, we send that put them in little bottles of a saline solution. And so which kills them right away. They'll get sent to the lab in Maryland, we have our, you know, our home bases, University of Maryland, on the east coast. So all those samples get processed there for the Varroa mite, which is the number one problem for commercial and backyard beekeepers, and they get tested for Nozema also, which is an intestinal pathogen. So then every month the participating beekeepers get a report that shows their levels, their colony size, their mite levels, Nozema levels, compared with everybody else in the program. So it's all anonymous, so you can't tell who is who but it's a way for beekeepers to see where they fall among their peers with regards to the mostly the mites. So if you see that your mite levels are sky high and everyone else is low, that's a maybe indication that your mite treatments aren't working or maybe you realize that you know, it is important to treat for mites if you're not already doing that. And that's one of the big takeaways. The participants are you know, realize how important that regular monitoring is. Because you can look open a hive and not see any mites not see any signs of problems. But unless you actually take a sample, you can't really know for sure there's times when you open a hive and it looks great. And there are mites in there and a lot most of the mites are not even on the bees, they're in the brood and they're feeding on the larvae in the pupae. You know that developing young bees that's where the mites are doing their damage under the capped brood, which is you know, sealed. So if you get, you know, a few mites in your sample, it means there's a lot more in the brood. So that's a good reminder for everyone to be on top of the mites. At the end of the year, they're going get a summary report for the whole season so they can see what was the theme of the year, every year is really different depending on what region you're, in how the weather's been. So it's really fascinating to go back and look at all the data. And we've been doing this for years now. So we have a lot of longitudinal data over time, which is really fascinating to look at.

    Nicole: 8:22

    And is this information available online for people that aren't participating? To look at?

    Ben: 8:26

    Yes, absolutely. We have a really nice website. It's So I encourage anybody who's interested to go look on the website, there's a lot of survey results. We also do a yearly survey, an annual loss and management survey, we get about 10,000 responses every year. It's a quite an extensive survey. But the data that we're pulling from that is really valuable and interesting because of what it shows. It asks the management history of the colonies. And so that data is actually all on the website. So you can look in pick different criteria. For example, what are you treating with, what management strategies are you using, and then you can check these boxes and look at the loss information for these different management strategies. So that's open to the public. Also if you're interested in the Sentinel Program, there's a way to get to that you just go to Beeinformed in the menu. It's under "Citizen Science" on that you can get more information, the Sentinel Apiary Program, if anybody's interested in that.

    Nicole: 9:19

    Okay, and how long have you been involved with the Bee Informed Partnership and/or being out in the field?

    Ben: 9:25

    So this is my sixth year with Bee Informed Partnership, I spent the first four years in the northern California region. So living in Chico, there's actually a large amount of queen breeders right in Northern California area around Chico and then Redding and then a little bit of East if you're in the valley in Orland. And I'd say probably half of the Queen supply for the whole country comes from from this little corner of the country, mostly because it has perfect weather during the mating season, which is right about now and into April. So I started working with commercial beekeepers. I mean commercial queen breeders and helping them select their stock. We have different tests, we run through hygenic testing. So measuring the colonies hygenic abilities. Now these are very clean, hygienic insects, but it's a variable trait. Some are more OCD than others about cleaning out diseased and dead larvae. So we have a test that we run through and run with them. And we're able to give the queen breeders information about which ones are naturally hygenic. We're able to actually have a big, big impact in the beekeeping community, because so many people use those queens. So that's my a lot of my, you know, first experience with large scale beekeeping was with the queen breeders. And then I moved up into the Pacific Northwest region, it's been two or three years now. So I've been based out of Oregon, and it's a whole different style of beekeeping up there, and most of the beekeepers are migratory pollinators. So they're going after pollination contracts, and the honey that they produce is almost an afterthought. It's a byproduct, especially with honey prices being so low right now. Their business models are totally different. So they're not selling queens or bees but mostly getting money from pollination services. So they have a certain pollination circuit where they start in Almonds in California. They go to Blueberries and Cherries and Pears after that as well. Right oh now when the Cherry growers are starting to ask for bees, and the Blueberry growers are starting to, you know, call me about getting their pollination contracts filled. So yeah, so the last three years I've been in the Pacific Northwest with these migratory pollinators and my my background with bees started as a kid I grew up in Wisconsin, in a beekeeping family so we had just a couple hundred hives, and I thought that we were big shots, but really seeing these operations out here makes me realize that that was quite a small operation that I got my start in, but good, good, valuable experience. I learned as a kid just how to open the hives and what to look for. Every region has different styles of beekeeping in the Midwest, they tend to focus on honey. So you know North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, those are great honey producing states, especially when there's a good sweet clover crop. Or, you know, they've got good rain for a couple years in a row, that sweet clover really produces a lot of honey. And most of our honey does come from that northern Midwest region. So then Eastern beekeepers, they kind of have a combination of things where they do pollination up and down the East Coast. You know, they do, they go to Florida for the winter, and then they move up to Michigan for the fruit crops and Blueberries in the northeast. So it's really interesting talking to other Tech Team members, because you know, there's five or six of us, and we were talking at least once or twice a week and share information share how the bees are doing different regions. Sometimes it's the weather really plays a huge role. And other times there's, you know, nationwide trends.

    Ben: 11:25

    So with your vast experience in doing this both on your personal and professional level, what are some of the trends that you've noticed?

    Ben: 12:55

    Well, that's a great question. So as far as disease trends, this Varroa mite has really been problematic and it came came out of Asia jumped from the Asian honeybee to the European honeybee a few decades ago and it got into this country. I think it was the in the 80s when it first started to creep in, and it's really been a huge problem. At first when they first came, beekeepers were able to be successful while having a large mite load those the mites were you know, they're sapping energy from the bees, but they weren't outright killing them. And then something happened in the past 10-15 years where the viruses that these mites are transmitting, have become very lethal and very virulent, so they spread quickly and they're more deadly. So we're used to be able to have a large mite load and still have a healthy colony. Now that threshold for mite level is way lower. So if you know if you have you know three mites per 100 bees in your sample lets you know a 3% infestation that's considered the treatment threshold, and I think in the past, you'd be able to get away with having more mites. And in more recent years, mite control is really the biggest determiner of success or failure. If you are on top of the mites and treating them, your colonies have a way better chance of surviving. So that's been a big trend. And besides that, I would say the the trend in backyard beekeeping has really taken off in the past five to 10 years, it's really exploded. And I think it kind of started with the whole colony collapse disorder. This was in 2000, was it five or six when there was a lot of media attention on the bees are dying and we don't know what's going on. And I think a lot of people with good intentions, went out and got bees and are still you know, trying to get into beekeeping in an effort to to help save the bees or to increase the populations. So I've seen that trend really explode and in recent years, and I think it's a it's an overall it's a good thing, but it's a little bit of a double edged sword because I see a lot of newbies for lack of better term you know, coming in and not really having studied or not having a mentor, and then their colonies end up being reservoirs for mites and disease, if they're just neglected, you know, in the backyard. So that's something that I think we can do better at is, you know, educating people. I think it's really important if you want to get into bees for the first time to, to do a lot of homework research, read up, read up on it, and then have a mentor someone who's more experienced that can, you know, show you the ropes and get into the colony. Because it can be pretty discouraging to have your colonies die within, you know, six months of getting your first bees and then it just ends up being you have an empty hive in the backyard. So I kind of like to explain it as an you know, make an analogy to having a pet a dog or cat if you get a dog or cat you know, you become responsible for the health of that animal you need to get medicated you need to feed it give it a safe place to live. So it's the same thing with bees are living animals and and they're not, you know, they're not native wild animals. They're semi domesticated, they're, you know, they're from from the Old World. So they were brought here when the Europeans came. They're not a natural part of our, you know, our ecosystem, they become an essential part of our agricultural system. But it's not like putting a birdhouse up and having a native bird nest in your backyard. So I just tell people if you're going to have these, it's great. And I think it's super educational, interesting to watch and work and to watch the honey come in and taste your own honey. It's just I always encourage everyone to do their homework and join a club. There's a lot of local clubs that that love to have new members and I would say that's the first step but that trend shows no sign of declining bees are very trendy right now.

    Nicole: 16:37

    Yeah, I know that even in the about five years that I've been involved. Maybe it's just because I'm in that circle now. It's always like when you buy a new car, all of a sudden you see that that car around, but it does seem like the trend is really growing. And like you said, I think it's wonderful and I think that there's a great ripple effect that happens when you have bees. It makes you more aware of some of the stuff that's going on in the world but, but responsible beekeeping, I think is, is the key. It didn't even really kind of click to me, I guess until another interview that I did. I believe it was actually with Dr. Van Eaglesdorp. And he was saying, you know, yes, bees can get along on their own, but we're putting them in this artificial environment where we're putting them in a box and putting them in our backyard. So we need to do some things to help them along things like Varroa treatments and such.

    Ben: 17:29

    Absolutely. And our landscapes have changed drastically in the past generation or two, where the agricultural landscape is very, it's very barren. And you know, I'm from the Midwest, and you go drive around the countryside. And so things like Corn and Soy, or they farm right to the hedgerows, there's really, you know, they're, they're so efficient at producing the one crop, you know, they're pretty much killing every other weed. So agriculture, agricultural environments are pretty inhospitable to bees, but if you can find a place that has a natural forest, you know, river bottom, or it's an actual open prairie, this is where bees are going to be foraging. So in our urban environments are, are hit or miss you know you have a lot of ornamental flowers that are actually pretty good for bees. But then you also have people spraying their yards for weeds and spraying for mosquitoes. So the bees have it coming from all sides and they do need extra help and pampering them to be healthy.

    Nicole: 18:24

    And backing up a little bit in what you said about the assumption that there was a spike in beekeeping, likely due to the CCD stuff. Can you kind of explain what exactly Colony Collapse is? And had you guys done any studies where you guys, were you guys doing this field testing at that time?

    Ben: 18:42

    Yeah, the Colony Collapse Disorder, that was kind of the the impetus for this to start. So that was when there was a lot of attention. There was some funding available. We don't actually use the term CCD as much anymore. That was kind of a catch all term that described a certain set of symptoms, including the bees are just leaving the colony, you know they just absconded and take off with no signs of disease. So it was kind of a catch all term, if there was an issue if your bees died, you just say, well, it was CCD, I don't know what happened to them. But as more time has passed, and we as we've done more research, we kind of I mean, we we come across a sick or dying colony at this point, we kind of know what's going on with it. And there's not as much of a mystery anymore. And it almost always comes back to nutrition. Either they're starving because the landscape is not providing enough nectar or pollen that they need. Or it's the mites and the viruses they carry. So a lot of these viruses are, you know, somebody that levels they can weaken the colony and cause it to die out. There's been a lot of theories about you know, cell phone towers, messing up their navigation, and that's been pretty much ruled out one of the beekeepers I work with, he's a beekeeper and he's got a cell phone tower right in his backyard next to his bees, and they always look healthy. So I think I don't know if I believe that. The pesticide issue, it's always been there. And with a new class of pesticides called neo-nicotinoids. They're extremely lethal to insects. And when bees get into them, they definitely will be will be hit hard and will lose a lot of the population. But I don't think that you can attribute most of the losses to that. I think it's certain acute poisonings where you see that that happened in Oregon couple years ago where they were trying to kill a pest insect on a bunch of trees and they injected these trees with with a neo-nic that the bees were, you know, they were attracted to the honeydew that these insects are creating and poisoned a ton of bumblebees. So there's definitely been acute kills but I wouldn't say pesticides are a leading cause of, of colony death these days are an extra stressor. So those neo-nics, they're replacing a whole class of insecticides, you know, organophosphate chemicals, which were used extensively before the neo-nics. And those actually have their own set of problems. They're not as It's targeted to insects, so they can cause all kinds of problems to other animals and mammals. And they are more persistent in the environment. So I know neo-nics are easy target. And I think that we should reduce their use as much as possible. But to ban them completely, like some places are advocating might have unintended consequences of going back to these older, less targeted chemicals. So it's a tricky one. But I think if we can, overall reduce already, our dependence on chemicals for agricultural system, our food system will be better off, the bees will be better off. I see that trend with smaller, diversified sustainable farms, organic farms, I see that being very helpful to pollinators in general and honey bees, it comes down to consumers what they're looking for. And if you're buying the cheapest food in the supermarket, chances are it's coming from this, you know, industrialized, kind of access that we have, which is which is challenging for honeybees and biodiversity in general.

    Nicole: 21:55

    Yeah, I feel like that's a topic that could go definitely down a deep rabbit hole. There's lots of facets with that. And unfortunately, I think it just comes down to money in general.

    Ben: 22:07

    Yeah, absolutely. And beekeepers are just trying to, you know, they're trying to work within this system that we have. And even though it is rough on the bees, when they're being moved from pollination event, the pollination event, the trucking is stressful on them, you know, there's certain percentage of queens that will perish in that, in that journey, they're being exposed to all these ag chemicals, but the beekeeper, if they want to stay in business, this is their source of income. And it's hard to argue with your grower when they're writing your paycheck. So there's, it's hard for beekeepers to, you know, complain about these problems when it's kind of biting the hand that feeds them. But there are many growers that you know, they are starting to realize how important the bees are, especially the Almond growers, you know, there was a time when they would be spraying all day, you know, they would be mixing insecticides and fungicides spraying them during the day. And you know, they're killing the bees that are supposed to be pollinating the crop. So I think that message has finally got through to them that you're shooting yourself in the foot by spraying during the day, whether it's an insecticide, fungicide or anything to spray in the day when the bees are working is not going to be helpful to the bees or your crops. So, most of them are now trying to limit the spraying to overnight hours, which is which is better be nice if they didn't spray it all while the bees were in there. But you know, they're trying to reduce their risk and maximize their bottom line. So it's it's a delicate balancing act.

    Nicole: 23:28

    So if you could sum up kind of a takeaway message or some last advice for new beekeepers or for small scale beekeepers, what would you recommend?

    Ben: 23:38

    Okay, yeah, I would like I said before, I recommend looking at your local bee club. That's usually a great source of information. There's usually some people in those clubs that have been keeping beesr for many years and those are the most you know, the most vital resources as beekeepers that have hives and they can know if you can shadow them for a couple days. You know, offer your help. I say I'll help you out in the field with the bees. You know, just as a way to learn so I think that is the best way to learn is how to find a mentor or get involved with a bee club. I think even some of the feed supply stores probably have some resources but there's tons of videos on YouTube you know, I'm hesitant to recommend that because there's a lot of misinformation out there too. Also, I think if you're thinking about getting bees and you're not quite sure about it and you want to do something kind of in between want to help the bees but maybe you're not sure if you want to buy your own equipment and get your own colonies you can really do a lot to help native pollinators and honey bees by planting an herb garden. Honey bees love Sage and Oregano, Thyme, Mint that when it's blooming, it's just they just go crazy for it. So if you want to observe bees and be involved in helping them I see that's like something you can do immediately. You know start planning those plants this you know the spring and you'll be able to watch the bees collected nectar and pollen and feel like you're involved. Looking years ahead, there's also some some trees that can be planted like a Black Locust is a great hunting tree, same with Linden or Basswood. So if you're thinking long term for, you know, providing a food source for bees, those trees are awesome. They're not native, unfortunately. But I think we'll get to your need or honeybees. So if you have to consider that. Also, if anybody would like to check out the website, there's a way to ask questions and communicate through the website to So that's another way to learn information and to get involved. Because you have tbees already, I'd recommend doing the management and last survey that will be coming out here in April. So keep an eye out for that.

    Nicole: 25:32

    And with the Sentinel Program, to get involved with that, is there a deadline or is that open year round?

    Ben: 25:38

    That begins in May, so the first handling period will be in May, that's normally when most of the country is thawed out enough for people to get into their bees. So I would say you'd probably want to sign up before not too far into May so that you can get your tickets shipped to you in time for you to take your first sampling in May.

    Nicole: 25:55

    All right. Well, by the time this comes out, that might be too late for this year, but done something to put on the list for next year.

    Ben: 26:02

    Absolutely, and if you make our information request, we can at least get you all the information about the program, and so you can be prepared for next year.

    Nicole: 26:09

    Wonderful. Well, I really appreciate your time Ben, you know, I had heard about the Bee Informed Partnership, and I'd heard a little bit about the Sentinel Program, but I really didn't know that much about it. So I think that this has been really helpful information. I think this is something that beekeepers of all levels can take away, you know, some insight and some things that they can use. And I really appreciate your time today.

    Ben: 26:31

    Thank you, Nicole. It was my pleasure.

    Nicole: 26:33

    And for those of you listening, thank you so much for joining us for another episode, and we'll see you again next week.

    Announcer: 26:40

    Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty, a podcast by Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review. If you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show. please email us at [email protected]. Also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at Heritage Acres Market. All the links mentioned in this podcast will be included in the description. See you again next week!

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