In Ross' workshop, I was amazed by how different beekeeping is than any other common animal agriculture. A beehive is an entire society with a central leader and bees with different, distinct roles. Apiculture (beekeeping) is also very unique because bees are wild; if they choose to — and they do sometimes — they can pick up and leave.
Unlike most animals on farms, bees choose their own food. The farmer does not need to feed his bees during the growing season like he does cows or chickens, but he does decide (and therefore control) what food is available to them based on what plants are growing nearby. Bees can cover a range of up to five miles from the hive, but they prefer to stay as close as possible for efficiency's sake. Just like all other animals, if a bee eats unhealthily, it is vulnerable to sickness. Because they are so small, I think people often forget that bees respond to unhealthy diet and stress just like all other animals, and they are often located in agricultural landscapes that provide very little diversity and substance in terms of food. Ross doesn't see colony collapse disorder as much of a mystery: beehives are disappearing because they're treated like crap.
Let me explain. The majority of income for many beekeepers in the U.S. comes from pollination services for agricultural crops. Apiarists travel with their beehives all over the country so that the hives can pollinate different crops during their respective flowering seasons. When apiarists send their bees to California to pollinate almond trees, they expect to lose ten percent of hive populations in transportation. In transport, bees are trapped in their hives and fed refined sugar water mixtures. At each new site, the bees have access to few food sources since they are pollinating large monoculture crops; lack of diversity in their diet affects the bees just like it would affect us, and weakens their immune systems. Also, in areas with conventional agriculture most non-honeybee pollinators have been exterminated, making the system unbalanced and over-reliant on the bees. It is no wonder bees are having issues these days!
One thing that is strange about colony collapse, however, is the response of other animals. When a hive dies from cold or lack of food, animals and organisms quickly take advantage of all the left over resources from the hive. After colony collapse, however, scavengers steer clear of the hive for days before entering the area in the same way that animals avoid a place that holds disease, even though researchers can't find any disease in these mostly abandoned hives.
One really cool thing about bees is that they can benefit from diet supplements just like we can. Ross said that there has been success in preventing colony collapse disorder by supplementing bee diet with the essential oils spearmint and lemongrass. He makes up teas and homemade concoctions to keep his bees healthy just like we do for ourselves, with positive results.