Scramble Is on To Cope With Honeybee Decimation

March 14, 2007

 Populations of US honeybees, essential for pollinating about one-third of all the foods we eat, typically oscillate significantly from year to year, and from region to region.

But during the past two years, and especially since last fall, strong hints of far greater than normal die-offs have been appearing all over the country, in at least 24 states (map of affected states). Other states may be added to the list in coming weeks, as northern beekeepers visit their hives and take stock. In addition, die-offs in some states may not be reported, since some beekeepers don't want to publicize their plight.

So far, many beekeepers are reporting death rates of 30-90%, though a comprehensive national tally isn't expected until about May. Similar death rates have been reported in spots around the country in recent years, but not from every region in one season. A national average in the ballpark of 20% is usually considered a normal hazard in this business. Just a few decades ago, 5-10% was the norm.

Without honeybees, there is little or no production for crops such as almonds, apples, pears, peaches, kiwis, avocados, cherries, tomatoes, cantaloupes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, soybeans, alfalfa, and clover.

The recent collapse of honeybee populations is serious enough that it has received its own name, Colony Collapse Disorder. A coalition of government, university, and industry officials from around the country is trying to quickly determine what is wrong, and what can be done. Information on their efforts is available through the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium Web site hosted by Penn State Univ.: Maryann Frazier, 814-865-4621.

The cause(s) of the die-off are a puzzle, but the team hopes to have some information on potential culprits, such as mites, diseases, and viruses, very soon, maybe within weeks. Other factors that could be playing a role, directly or indirectly, include:

  • overuse or improper use of various pesticides
  • other chemical contamination in the hives or honeybees
  • effects of genetically modified crops
  • overextended honeybees, caused by factors such as major decreases in honeybees and beekeepers, due to problems such as mite infestations and falling prices for honey, due to imports; sizable increases in some crops needing pollination, such as almonds; increased long-distance transport of honeybees to help handle the increased demand, possibly spreading diseases and their vectors, and stressing the bees; and altered patterns in honeybee management, such as a shorter off-season
  • lack of genetic diversity in the honeybees
  • expansion of suburbs and other developed areas, reducing forage for bees
  • changing climate that alters the normal impact of parasites, pathogens, and other threats.

Among the potential remedies, some of which are already being implemented, are:

  • identifying the cause(s) and quickly finding a remedy
  • finding other pollinators, including other bee species
  • importing bees from other countries (though if the existing problem isn't identified and fixed, any new bees may also quickly succumb)
  • trying again to find alternative pollination techniques, some of which have been failures before (e.g., using wind machines, helicopters, even mortar shells, to spread pollen)
  • cutting back or abandoning selected US crops, and importing them from other countries
  • bringing back state inspection and oversight services, which may have helped catch this problem earlier if they hadn't been cut back or dropped in some states.

To find out what's happening in your area, some additional sources include:

For much more information on the worldwide threats to pollinators of all types, see TipSheets of Sept. 27, 2006, and Jan. 31, 2007.