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Mysterious Bee Losses Continue; Threaten Crops

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April 12, 2007
by Ching Lee

• Beekeepers baffled, farmers worried

• Colony collapse disorder now found in 24 states, Canada

Beekeepers nationwide are opening their hives and finding them empty, a baffling phenomenon that has researchers scratching their heads and farmers worrying about their crops.

The bees are mysteriously vanishing and no one is sure why. Instead of thriving colonies, beekeepers say they're typically finding only a queen and a few attendants left -- but no trace of the other bees, not even their bodies.

Known as colony collapse disorder, the problem has affected beekeepers in 24 states and Canada, with some losing as much as 25 percent to more than 75 percent of their hives. The sudden unexplained losses have not only been a financial detriment to many beekeepers but could threaten billions of dollars worth of crops that depend on the insects for pollination.

In a legislative hearing before the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture in March, Gene Brandi, a Merced County beekeeper and chairman of the California State Beekeepers Association, told lawmakers that while bee losses are not uncommon, the current ailment plaguing bee colonies is much more serious.

He says about 40 percent of his colonies died over the winter, his greatest loss in 30 years of business. That equates to a loss of nearly $60,000 in pollination income and another $20,000 in bulk bee sales, plus a cost of $48,000 to restock the 800 dead hives.

"Even though my loss is substantial, other beekeepers throughout the country have suffered much great losses," he says. "Beekeepers who lost over 50 percent of their colonies will have difficulty making up their losses from their own colonies as I plan to do."

Bees pollination is involved in the production of a wide range of fruits, vegetables and forage crops, but it is perhaps most critical in the production of almonds. Nearly 1.4 million bee colonies are needed each year to help California's almond growers set nearly 600,000 acres of this crop, now worth more than $2.4 billion annually. California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds, according to the Almond Board of California.

Other crops dependent on honeybee pollination include apples, avocados, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, melons and sunflowers.

But as California's almond acreage continues to increase, the nation's bee colonies are dwindling -- from 3.2 million in 1986 to 2.4 million in 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In California, there were 380,000 bee colonies in 2006, compared to 520,000 in 1986.

To meet growers' demand, bees are brought in from all over the United States and even Australia to work the fields.

"Each year, as growers we worry about the supply of bees and what the weather is like during the critical pollination period," California Farm Bureau Federation First-Vice President Paul Wenger, a Stanislaus County almond grower, told the House panel. "Our crop fortunes rise or fall on what happens."

He noted that he currently pays $130 per hive to pollinate his crop, a steep price compared to the average rental price of $45 per hive in 2003.

The cause of colony collapse disorder is unknown, although poor nutrition, mites, diseases and pesticides have all been suspect. There is also concern that some genetically modified crops may be producing pollen or nectar that is problematic for the bees, says Mr. Brandi.

"Lesser known is the fact that some pesticides can also kill or deform immature bees, adversely affect queen and drone viability or may cause bees to lose their memory, which prevents them from flying back to their hive," he says.

The nation's supply of bees was already in danger before the colony collapse disorder came along. For many years, beekeepers have been trying to control the destructive varroa mite, a parasite that has dealt catastrophic losses to the bee industry.

Messrs. Brandi and Wenger say research is the key to overcoming these current problems, noting the need for more scientists and bee experts at the University of Davis to study the insect's behavior, physiology and genetics. There are currently no active professors of apiculture on the campus, although one UC Extension apiculturist continues to serve the industry, Mr. Brandi says. The federal government currently spends less than $10 million a year on bee research.

"The need for additional bee research is obvious," says Mr. Brandi. "There are just too many unanswered questions that need to be addressed if the bee industry is to survive and perhaps thrive again."

(About the writer: Ching Lee is assistant editor of Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Foundation. This article was originally written for Ag Alert and is used with permission.)

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