Much has been written about the continuing disappearance of the honey bee, the corresponding demise of commercial beekeeping and the various culprits that account for the decline or colony collapse disorder (CCD) as it is known in the trade. Ask a dozen beekeepers what is causing CCD and you will receive as many responses: Pesticides, fungi, excessive antibiotics, poor husbandry, loss of habitat, cell phones or the inevitable repetition of History. Hang on! History?

Noah Wilson-Rich Ph.D, the founder of Best Bees, has found that honey bees have endured ‘great die offs’ on a regular basis. This current decline may just be another manifestation. It is a heated debate that continues alongside a variety of initiatives to solve the conundrum throughout US universities and research institutions.

Meanwhile, the backyard beekeeper - the humble amateur - has quietly been on the rise. While statistics are hard to come by, the circumstantial evidence is mounting. In Virginia, for example, the number of hives has doubled over the past decade or so. Local beekeeper clubs are seeing record enrollment thanks in part to the publicity surrounding Michelle Obama’s hives in the White House garden. Williams Sonoma’s new Agrarian catalog focuses on beehives (and chicken coops), while the rise of homesteading and the Local Food movement both contribute to beekeeping's increasing popularity. All intertwine to encourage backyard beekeepers.

Kim Flottum, managing editor of Bee Culture and a long-time pillar of the beekeeping community has maintained a combination of statistics from which he extrapolates that “backyard beekeeping has grown 30-32% over the past seven years”. He estimates that over half of that growth has been in the past three years. “Most of the bees are West of the Mississippi where the commercial beekeepers are based. Most of the beekeepers are East of the Mississippi.” In other words, the recent increase in the number of beekeepers is concentrated in the major urban areas in the East, not least due to the relaxation of city ordinances over beekeeping.

This confluence of urban beekeepers and the search for explanations into CCD has led to another trend. Both the newer urban beekeepers and the more traditional, rural beekeepers are increasingly turning to more sophisticated approaches to colony management, to science and in particular, to the practical application of the microscope.

The newer urban beekeeper is more comfortable with such technology while more traditional beekeepers are turning to microscopes due to necessity. There is a growing awareness of the need for more accurate and earlier diagnosis, of the benefits of immediate on site analysis and subsequently of swifter, targeted treatment of potentially disastrous hive infections.

Part of this growing acceptance of microscopes among beekeepers is the dawning realization that microscopes are not as daunting as their High School memories suggest! In part, it is because the cost of microscopes has fallen.

The cost is also defrayed by savings on laboratory analysis fees and perhaps more importantly, by the savings implicit in earlier treatment that decreases the risk of CCD. Beekeeper clubs across the country are also investing in microscopes so that more beekeepers have access to what previously was not in their individual budgets.

Many beekeepers, however, still rely on experience and perception alone. With no diagnostic tools beyond their eyeballs, there is a tendency to diagnose hive infections at a more advanced stage of infection. As a result, heavier treatments may be applied with lower rates of success and higher risks of long-term resistance to treatment. Worse, many beekeepers simply dose their hives with antibiotics with no idea of the nature and scale of the problem at all.

Nosema spores with hymacytometer

Randy Oliver, a leading guru at the forefront of the juxtaposition of beekeeping and science, started an article in 2012 with, “It is greatly surprising to me …….how few (beekeepers) make the effort to monitor the levels of parasites in their colonies! Even more surprising is that, despite the considerable expense, many blindly treat their colonies without any idea as to whether their bees are actually infected!” At a 2011 Eastern Apiculture Society conference, a surprising number of beekeepers confessed to this type of blind dosing every Spring ‘just in case’ their hives were infected. When asked if they do the same with their children, they looked puzzled!

So to what end are beekeepers using microscopes? First and foremost, a compound microscope is a highly effective diagnostic tool for infections. For example, the fungal infection of Nosema ceranae has proved particularly deadly over the past few years. It has been a prime suspect in the search for an explanation for CCD.

Traditionally, beekeepers have responded to nosema infections without an accurate feel for the stage or degree of infection. Now with a gut sample that is easily prepared on site in the beeyards, they can self-diagnose using a rechargeable LED compound microscope at 400x magnification.

The results are immediate. The Nosema ceranae spores look like horse racing ovals and stand out like beacons. With the addition of a simple hemocytometer, the beekeeper can gain an accurate spore count and, therefore, a more accurate picture of the degree of infection. Within five minutes, the beekeeper has gone from pure guesswork to an informed opinion.

Pollen analysis is another common use for a compound microscope. Melissopalynology, or the study of pollen in honey, is not just for the laboratory experts. A simple compound microscope can help identify the dominant pollen in any beekeeper’s honey, although with 250,000 different plants used by the honey bee in the US, most beekeepers may need some point of reference for accurate identification. Pollen analysis helps ensure correct labeling while it is also commonly used in forensic analysis, archeology and pure honey research.

Low power stereo microscopes are also used for colony management. For example, almost all beehives suffer from mite infections. While eyeballing works well for seeing if mites are present, a stereo microscope is useful to determine what the mite's identity and therefore, what treatment is required.

Other applications include basic anatomy of the honey bee, training, and for the more advanced practitioner, artificial insemination of the Queen Bee. More recently, Dino-Lite digital microscopes have proved useful tools given their hand-held nature, greater portability and wider range of magnification than the typical stereo microscope.

Microscopes are but one tool in the beekeeper’s armory to combat the many vicissitudes that face bee hives. They are a small tool within the context of the work that needs to be done in order to resolve the plight of the honey bee in North America. However, they do offer some hope not least because they are simple to use, affordable and widely available for even the newest beekeeper. They are an enabling technology that can lead to improved colony management - which in itself may lie the solution to the demise of the honey bee.

Images: courtesy of Randy Oliver, and by Gretchen D. Jones, Ph.D., United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service, Area-wide Pest Management Research Unit