Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

There may be no easy remedy to the colony collapse disorder (CCD) affecting bees:

The bee loss has raised alarms because one third of the world’s agricultural production depends on the European honeybee, Apis mellifera the kind universally adopted by beekeepers in Western countries. Large, monoculture farms require intense pollination activity for short periods of the year, a role that other pollinators such as wild bees and bats cannot fill. Only A. melliferacan deploy armies of pollinators at almost any time of the year, wherever the weather is mild enough and there are flowers to visit.

Our collaboration has ruled out many potential causes for CCD and found many possible contributing factors. But no single culprit has been identified. Bees suffering from CCD tend to be infested with multiple pathogens, including a newly discovered virus, but these infections seem secondary or opportunistic much the way pneumonia kills a patient with AIDS. The picture now emerging is of a complex condition that can be triggered by different combinations of causes. There may be no easy remedy to CCD. It may require taking better care of the environment and making long-term changes to our beekeeping and agricultural practices.

Even before colony collapse, honeybees had suffered from a number of ailments that reduced their populations. The number of managed honeybee colonies in 2006 was about 2.4 million, less than half what it was in 1949. But beekeepers could not recall seeing such dramatic winter losses as occurred in 2007 and 2008. Although CCD probably will not cause honeybees to go extinct, it could push many beekeepers out of business. If beekeepers’ skills and know-how become a rarity as a result, then even if CCD is eventually overcome, nearly 100 of our crops could be left without pollinators and large-scale production of certain crops could become impossible. We would still have corn, wheat, potatoes and rice. But many fruits and vegetables we consume routinely today such as apples, blueberries, broccoli and almonds could become the food of kings.

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