Thursday, June 14, 2007

Excellent article in the Los Angeles Times about bees

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The puzzling phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has been reported in 35 states, five Canadian provinces and several European countries. The die-off has cost U.S. beekeepers about $150 million in losses and an uncertain amount for farmers scrambling to find bees to pollinate their crops.

Scientists have scoured the country, finding eerily abandoned hives in which the bees seem to have simply left their honey and broods of baby bees.

"We've never experienced bees going off and leaving brood behind," said Pennsylvania-based beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. "It was like a mother going off and leaving her kids."

Researchers have picked through the abandoned hives, dissected thousands of bees, and tested for viruses, bacteria, pesticides and mites.

So far, they are stumped.

According to the Apiary Inspectors of America, 24% of 384 beekeeping operations across the country lost more than 50% of their colonies from September to March. Some have lost 90%.

"I'm worried about the bees," said Dan Boyer, 52, owner of Ridgetop Orchards in Fishertown, Pa., which grows apples. "The more I learn about it, the more I think it is a national tragedy."

At Boyer's orchard, 400 acres of apple trees — McIntosh, Honey Crisp, Red Delicious and 11 other varieties — have just begun to bud white flowers.

Boyer's trees need to be pollinated. Incompletely pollinated blooms would still grow apples, he said, but the fruit would be small and misshapen, suitable only for low-profit juice.

This year, he will pay dearly for the precious bees — $13,000 for 200 hives, the same price that 300 hives cost him last year.

The scene is being repeated throughout the country, where honeybees, scientifically known as Apis mellifera, are required to pollinate a third of the nation's food crops, including almonds, cherries, blueberries, pears, strawberries and pumpkins.

VanEngelsdorp, 37, quickly eliminated the most obvious suspects: Varroa and tracheal mites, which have occasionally wrought damage on hives since the 1980s.

At the state lab in Harrisburg, Pa., VanEngelsdorp checked bee samples from Pennsylvania and Georgia. He washed bees with soapy water to dislodge Varroa mites and cut the thorax of the bees to look for tracheal mites; he found that the number of mites was not unusually high.

His next guess was amoebic infection. He scanned the bees' kidneys for cysts and found a handful, but not enough to explain the population decline.

VanEngelsdorp dug through scientific literature looking for other mass disappearances.

He found the first reference in a 1869 federal report, detailing a mysterious bee disappearance. There was only speculation as to the cause — possibly poisonous honey or maybe a hot summer.

A 1923 handbook on bee culture noted that a "disappearing disease" went away in a short time without treatment. There was a reference to "fall dwindle" in a 1965 scientific article to describe sudden disappearances in Texas and Louisiana.

He found other references but no explanations.

A number of the pollen samples went to Maryann Frazier, a honeybee specialist at Penn State who has been coordinating the pesticide investigation. Her group has been testing for 106 chemicals used to kill mites, funguses or other pests.

Scientists have focused on a new group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which have spiked in popularity because they are safe for people, Frazier said. Studies have shown that these pesticides can kill bees and throw off their ability to learn and navigate, she said.

Researchers have yet to collect enough data to come to any conclusions, but the experience of French beekeepers casts doubt on the theory. France banned the most commonly used neonicotinoid in 1999 after complaints from beekeepers that it was killing their colonies. French hives, however, are doing no better now, experts said.


If the cause is not a poison, it is most likely a parasite.

UC San Francisco researchers announced in April that they had found a single-celled protozoan called Nosema ceranae in bees from colonies with the collapse disorder.

Unfortunately, Bromenshenk said, "we see equal levels of Nosema in CCD colonies and healthy colonies."

Several researchers, including entomologist Diana Cox-Foster of Penn State and Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University, have been sifting through bees that have been ground up, looking for viruses and bacteria.

"We were shocked by the huge number of pathogens present in each adult bee," Cox-Foster said at a recent meeting of bee researchers convened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The large number of pathogens suggested, she said, that the bees' immune systems had been suppressed, allowing the proliferation of infections.

The idea that a pathogen is involved is supported by recent experiments conducted by VanEngelsdorp and USDA entomologist Jeffrey S. Pettis.

One of the unusual features of the disorder is that the predators of abandoned beehives, such as hive beetles and wax moths, refuse to venture into infected hives for weeks or longer.

"It's as if there is something repellent or toxic about the colony," said Hayes, the Florida inspector.

In the absence of knowledge, theories have proliferated, including one that Osama bin Laden has engineered the die-off to disrupt American agriculture.

One of the most pervasive theories is that cellphone transmissions are causing the disappearances — an idea that originated with a recent German study. Berenbaum called the theory "a complete figment of the imagination."

The German physicist who conducted the tiny study "disclaimed the connection to cellphones," she said. "What they put in the colony was a cordless phone. Whoever translated the story didn't know the difference."

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Update June 16: University of Montana has an up-to-date Honey Bee CCD page.


Sorghum Crow said...

Thanks for the link. I thank every bee I see this year. I'm hoping to get lots of apples this year on my two trees. Some years they bloom so early that it's not warm enough for lots of bee activity.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for passing this article around! It's a great one that really gives an up-to-date summary of what we know about the potential bee epidemic.

I'm currently trying to raise money for bee research by selling tshirts! I hope you'll check it out!


Anonymous said...

I saw a bee here the other day and was surprised. We had so few of them last summer, even on our window boxes. Because I have anaphalaxia, I'm hyperaware of their presence.

ellroon said...

May you do well with your t-shirt business, Ryan.

Sorghum Crow, I too, am extra careful with the bees that fly about my garden. I'm not sure how badly California is affected, apparently the east coast has it the worst.

My tomatoes are setting, I have a really good crop of apricots, so whatever bees we do have here have been doing a good job. I'm not quite ready to hang upside down in my orange tree with a oil paint brush trying to pollinate the blossoms....

ellroon said...

Anaphalaxia? Yikes, Morse! Do you have to carry a shot or pills for that?

Do you react to peanuts and other foods or just to bees?

mapaghimagsik said...

You know, there's an article at guerrillanews that covers this with almost as much depth from some other angles.

Its well worth the read, and throws a couple angles at the whole mess.

mapaghimagsik said...

What strikes me as damn creepy about this is that normal hive raiders do not go after the honey in the abandoned hive until a couple of weeks after the colony has collapsed.

It could mean nothing, or there's a clue the hive raiding insects -- including other honeybees are picking up that we're not.

ellroon said...

Thanks, mapaghimagsik, I caught that article back in May. It was very good.

So: Bacteria? Mites? Pesticides? Global Warming? Parasites? Cell Phones? Genetic Modifications? Normal die off?

And the hive raiders NOT going after the honey is key. I've even suggested melamine has been mixed into commercial bee food and thus makes the honey toxic. (Melamine has been found inserted into soy protein which bee food uses.)

Maybe a combination of one too many of these finally destroyed the colony. The investigators said the bees looked like victims of AIDS where everything had attacked them in the end.

Wild bees and organic farmer bees do not have this problem btw.

mapaghimagsik said...

Wow, is that confirmed -- that wild bees and organic farmer bees don't have the problem?

I shy away from pointing that little observance out because I don't have backing data and it starts to make things seem a bit more painfully obvious.

ellroon said...

I'll go get the quotes.

ellroon said...

From this article
The Los Angeles Times ran a story noting the examined bees were suffering from a fungus and mentioned a commercial antibiotic. Beekeepers use a LOT of chemicals and antibiotics to keep their commercial hives going. They also have bred their stock to be bigger than normal:

Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. And, have we here a solution to the vanishing bee problem? Is it one that the CCD Working Group, or indeed, the scientific world at large, will support? Will media coverage affect government action in dealing with this issue?

These are important questions to ask. It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time.

A Michigan beekeeper thinks:

... CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness.

An organic beekeeper writes:

I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.