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E-M:/ Disappearing pollinators

Enviro-Mich message from "ecothinker" <ecothinker@comcast.net>

Op-Ed Contributor

Losing Their Buzz 


Published: March 2, 2007

Urbana, Ill.

Frank Stockton

WHEN Hollywood filmmakers want to heighten the tension of an insect fear
film, they just arrange for millions of killer bees to appear out of nowhere
to threaten a vulnerable group of people - over the years, these have
included children in a school bus, celebrants at a Mardi Gras parade and
people living near a nuclear power plant. 

But people from all demographic groups across the country are facing a much
more frightening real-life situation: the disappearance of millions of bees.
This winter, in more than 20 states, beekeepers have noticed that their
honeybees have mysteriously vanished, leaving behind no clues as to their
whereabouts. There are no tell-tale dead bodies either inside colonies or
out in front of hives, where bees typically deposit corpses of dead

What's more, the afflicted colonies tend to be full of honey, pollen and
larvae, as if all of the workers in the nest precipitously decamped on some
prearranged signal. Beekeepers are up in arms - last month, leaders in the
business met with research scientists and government officials in Florida to
figure out why the bees are disappearing and how to stop the losses. Nobody
had any answers.

That beekeepers are alarmed over this situation is understandable, but, just
as in the movies, the public may not recognize the magnitude of the threat
that these mysterious events present. 

A decline in the numbers of Apis melllifera, the world's most widely
distributed semi-domesticated insect, doesn't just mean a shortage of honey
for toast and tea. In fact, the economic value of honey, wax and other bee
products is trivial in comparison with the honeybee's services as a
pollinator. More than 90 crops in North America rely on honeybees to
transport pollen from flower to flower, effecting fertilization and allowing
production of fruit and seed. The amazing versatility of the species is
worth an estimated $14 billion a year to the United States economy.

Approximately one-third of the typical American's diet (primarily the
healthiest part) is directly or indirectly the result of honey bee
pollination. Production of almonds in California, a $2 billion enterprise,
is almost entirely dependent on honey bees. Every year beekeepers transport
millions of bees around the country to meet the ever-growing need for
pollination services for almonds, apples, blueberries, peaches and other
crops. This year it is possible that there won't be enough bees to meet the
demand for pollinators. 

Theories abound as to potential causes of what is being called colony
collapse disorder. As a social species living in close quarters at high
densities - the average hive contains upwards of 30,000 insects - honeybees
are prone to a staggering diversity of fungal, bacterial and viral diseases.
In the 1980s, honeybee numbers plummeted when two species of parasitic mites
appeared, wiping out most populations of wild bees and placing more pressure
on managed colonies. This latest drop in numbers may be the consequence of a
new infection, or of several diseases simultaneously, leading to a fatally
compromised immune system. 

It is also possible that severe stress brought on by crowding, inadequate
nutrition or even the combined effects of prophylactic antibiotics and
miticides sprayed by beekeepers to ward off infections may be a factor.
Another, particularly sad, possibility is that accidental exposure to a new
pesticide may cause non-lethal behavioral changes that interfere with the
ability of honeybees to orient and navigate; brain-damaged foraging bees may
simply get lost on their way home and starve to death away from the hive. 

Irrespective of its causes, however, this drop comes at a critical time,
with demand for pollination services rocketing upward. Even in a high-tech
age when the human capacity to improve upon nature seems limitless, there is
no satisfactory substitute for the honeybee. Thus it's astonishing that
beekeeping remains largely unimproved by technological advances relative to
just about every other form of animal husbandry. The basic design of honey
bee housing is essentially unchanged since L. L. Langstroth patented his
movable frame hive in 1852; artificial insemination of queens, the last
significant technological advance in beekeeping, was introduced early in the
20th century. The 21st century holds great promise for innovation. 

Last October, an international consortium of scientists announced the
publication of the sequence of the entire honey bee genome. Among the
benefits of knowing the full gene inventory is that it has allowed the
construction of a whole-genome microarray - essentially a microscope slide
dotted with genetic material - here at the University of Illinois. 

Microarray analysis is a powerful tool for examining differences among a
very large number of genes rapidly and efficiently; it's the basis for new
diagnostic tools, for example, for clinical evaluation of many forms of
cancer. For bees, microarray analysis of differences between healthy and
afflicted bees may reveal the causes and provide insights for developing a

The real key to dealing with colony collapse disorder, however, is
understanding the extent of the problem, which may prove to be more of a
challenge than figuring out its origins. Although Americans are in general
good at counting things of value, we've done an absolutely appalling job at
counting our bees and other pollinators. 

In October, I served as chair of a committee for the National Research
Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, on the status
of pollinators in North America. Among the clearest conclusions of our
report was that Americans do not keep track of pollinators, even the one on
which much of our agriculture depends.

For example, the Department of Agriculture's statistics service has kept
records of honeybee colonies managed by beekeepers since 1947, but the
annual survey monitors only colonies used in honey production. Colonies used
exclusively for pollination are not included, nor do surveys take into
account the fact that some honey-producing colonies travel. The Agriculture
Department also doesn't track bees kept by small-scale beekeepers with fewer
than five colonies. 

No current survey monitors colony health or variability in bee numbers over
the season, a critical variable for assessing population dynamics as well as
economic effects of fluctuations. Although the Agriculture Department
surveys beekeeping operations every five years using criteria that address
some of these issues, five years between surveys provides ample time for
irreparable damage to occur before a problem can be recognized. 

Conspicuous among the recommendations from the National Research Council
committee was a call for the department to make annual bee assessments, with
winter losses monitored, general health assessed and pollination services

Moreover, no system is in place to monitor feral bees - those that escape
from managed colonies yet contribute critical pollination services to both
wild plants and farms. We need long-term monitoring of feral honeybees along
with other pollinators if we are to understand the true magnitude of
pollination services essential for a healthy agricultural economy. 

We count our pigs, our cows and our chickens (even before they hatch). The
Agriculture Department, amid concerns about infectious disease and
agro-terrorism, has even proposed establishing a national animal
identification system, under which it could trace the origin of any animal
in the food chain within 48 hours.

Yet honeybees, which contribute to our food chain in many more ways than any
other animal species (and whose pollination makes available the alfalfa and
clover processed into hay to feed beef and dairy cattle), are disappearing
without a trace at a rate we can't even measure accurately. Such
obliviousness with respect to a precious resource in crisis might play well
in a bad science fiction movie, but it's truly alarming to see it in real

May R. Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of
Illinois, is the author of "Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs and
Rock 'n' Roll."



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