I have a friend, a physician here in San Francisco, who lost both his hives of Italian honeybees to Colony Collapse Disorder and he was just as mystified as everyone else by this phenomena in which outwardly healthy colonies of bees suddenly disappear leaving behind a few, sick bees. The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium has been active in sounding the alarms and acting as a clearinghouse for breaking information.
From their home page:
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the name that has been given to the latest, and what seems to be the most serious, die-off of honey bee colonies across the country. It is characterized by, sudden colony death with a lack of adult bees in/in front of the dead-outs. Honey and bee bread are usually present and there is often evidence of recent brood rearing. In some cases, the queen and a small number of survivor bees may be present in the brood nest. It is also characterized by delayed robbing and slower than normal invasion by common pests such as wax moth and small hive beetles.
And this is serious stuff. We rely on bees for far more than people realize, Kevin Hackett of the USDA states,
Unless someone or something stops it soon, the mysterious killer that is wiping out many of the nation's honeybees could have a devastating effect on America's dinner plate, perhaps even reducing us to a glorified bread-and-water diet.
Honeybees don't just make honey; they pollinate more than 90 of the tastiest flowering crops we have. Among them: apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash and cucumbers. And lots of the really sweet and tart stuff, too, including citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and other melons.
In fact, about one-third of the human diet comes from insect- pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even cattle, which feed on alfalfa, depend on bees. So if the collapse worsens, we could end up being "stuck with grains and water," said Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for USDA's bee and pollination program.
"This is the biggest general threat to our food supply," Hackett said.
I recall seeing a story on the 11 o'clock news that farmers, who annually rent hives in order to pollinate their crops, were worried that there would insufficient hives available and their crops would suffer. Other articles have tried to downplay the risk by noting that farmers have other "pollinators" such as bumblebees and wasps.
But now it appears that the bumblebees are starting to turn up missing as well. Robbin Thorp, an emeritus professor of entomolgy at University of California-Davis, is worried for one,
He fears that the species - Franklin's bumblebee - has gone extinct before anyone could even propose it for the endangered species list. To make matters worse, two other bumblebee species - one on the East coast, one on the West - have gone from common to rare.
Professor Thorp reported finding only one solitary worker all last year
along a remote mountain trail in the Siskiyou Mountains and has been
unable to locate any this year.
Unfortunately, the loss of bumblebees is even more problematic. The UK Guardian reports,
But if bumblebees were to disappear, farmers and entomologists warn, the consequences would be huge, especially coming on top of the problems with honeybees, which are active at different times and on different crop species.
Bumblebees are responsible for pollinating an estimated 15 percent of all the crops grown in the U.S., worth $3 billion, particularly those raised in greenhouses. Those include tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.
Demand is growing as honeybees decline. In the wild, birds and bears depend on bumblebees for berries and fruits.
Just last month a critical breakthrough was made by a team led by scientists from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Pennsylvania State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, University of Arizona, and 454 Life Sciences who found a significant connection between the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) and colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees.
IAPV, an unclassified dicistrovirus not previously reported in the U.S. that is transmitted by the varroa mite, and Kasmir bee virus were only found in CCD hives. The researchers report that IAPV was found in all four affected operations sampled, in two of four royal jelly samples, and in the Australian sample. KBV was present in three of four CCD operations, but not in the royal jelly. One organism was significantly correlated with CCD: finding IAPV in a bee sample correctly distinguished CCD from non-CCD status 96.1 percent of the time.
"This is a powerful new strategy for looking at outbreaks of infectious disease and finding cause. Dr. Cox-Foster recruited us into this project, making a persuasive case for applying our state-of-the-art methods for differential diagnosis of infectious disease in humans, to this challenge in agricultural epidemiology," said Dr. Lipkin. "The profound synergy within the group--bringing entomology, microbiology, and bioinformatics together--enabled us to work toward a solution to this extraordinarily complex problem."
Although IAPV is certainly a much needed new tool for identifying those colonies at risk for collapse, it's not the entire answer and this whole problem is indicative of the delicate ties binding all of life together here on Earth.
Posted by Garth Sullivan.