Honeybees still at risk

Bees still suffering from colony collapse disorder

WASHINGTON — The coming winter could be tough for honeybees.

In winter of 2007-2008, more than 36 percent of hives in North America failed from such miseries as mites and the ailment called colony collapse disorder, says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania’s acting state apiarist. In the winter of 2006, more than 31 percent of hives failed.

Bee fates in the especially stressful time of winter aren’t easy to predict, but there was concern at a Washington, D.C. conference of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign on October 23.

Beekeepers can cope with a certain amount of loss by dividing the surviving colonies to create replacements. But the beekeepers themselves may be another matter. “If they lose 30 percent again, some of them are going out of business,” vanEngelsdorp says. The specialized skills of the keepers who follow the crops around the country can’t be easily replaced, and crops might end up wanting for bees to pollinate them.

Already the migrating bee suppliers have dwindled to the point where providing hives for the almond crop in California requires half the hives in the country. “There’s no more fat in the system,” says vanEngelsdorp.

Such bee losses “aren’t sustainable,” says Jeff Pettis, who leads the Bee Research Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md. “If dairy farmers were losing a third of their herds each year, there would be many people up in arms.”

Pettis is working on a project to explain colony collapse disorder, commercial honeybees’ latest threat. Starting in the winter of 2006, beekeepers in North America reported that worker bees had gone missing from hives, leaving the young brood without nursemaids..

The mystery has disappeared from the headlines, but bees are still disappearing. Many factors contribute to the disorder by weakening the bees, making them susceptible to a final blow. Just what those factors are is still under investigation.

One of the more recent findings, from a Pennsylvania consortium of researchers, is the observation that bees that encase some of their pollen in wax, creating an entombed red mass, face a higher risk of colony collapse disorder than bees that don’t.

Pettis and a research task force will release details on warning signs and other aspects of colony collapse disorder next spring.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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