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OCA's Save the Bees Campaign

More Experts Tie Bee Collapse to GMOs and Pesticides

Mike Rueden of rural Seymour keeps bees to sell the honey.

When he went to check on his 80 hives this spring he found only 15 colonies had survived. The bees apparently had succumbed to the mystery disease that is affecting bees nationwide.

It's not just Rueden's bees. Another beekeeper, Bob Bennett of Greenville said he was wiped out, too.

"I had 45 colonies last year and had only two left this spring," said Bennett. "Then the queens in those died and I bought more queens and they died in just the past two weeks."

Now a nationwide investigation, congressional panels and a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture scientific workshop are swarming around the newly named "colony collapse disorder." Says the USDA's Kevin Hackett, "With more dead and weakened colonies, the odds are building up for real problems."

"We lost 75 percent of our bees," said Rueden who now is carefully nursing 14 hives in the hopes that he can salvage enough honey to get through the season.

Beekeepers report losses of 30 to 90 percent of their honeybee hives, according to a Congressional Research Service study in March. Some report total losses.

Rueden is making plans to try to prevent the severe losses of last winter.

"We are going to try some new things and do some divides and try to winter smaller numbers of bees in smaller hives," he said.

New type of disorder

The $15-billion-a-year honeybee industry is about more than honey: The nimble insects pollinate 90 to 100 percent of at least 19 kinds of fruits, vegetables and nuts nationwide, from almonds and apples to onions and broccoli.

"Basically, everything fun and nutritious on your table - fruits, nuts, berries, everything but the grains - require bee pollinators," Hackett says.

Beekeepers, who travel nationwide supplying pollinators to farmers, have been losing honeybees for a long time, mostly a result of suburbs snapping up habitat and the invasion in the 1980s of two foreign parasitic mite species. As a result, bee colonies have declined 60 percent since 1947, from an estimated 5.9 million to 2.4 million, says entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois.

Each year, in fact, the bee industry supplies at least 1 million queens and packages of bees to replace lost hives, according to a 2006 National Research Council report. And sudden losses of hives have been reported since the 1800s.

But colony collapse disorder differs from past outbreaks:

# Instead of dying in place, the bees abandon the hives, leaving behind the queen and young bees.

# Remaining bees eat sparsely and suffer the symptoms - high levels of bacteria, viruses and fungi in the guts - seen by Hackenberg.

# Collapses can occur within two days, Hackett says.

# Parasites wait unusually long to invade abandoned hives.

Daniel Weaver, head of the 1,500-member American Beekeeping Federation, estimates that about 600,000 of 2 million hives (a more conservative number than other estimates) nationwide have been lost.

A colony collapse disorder working group based at Pennsylvania State University has become a central clearinghouse for all the suspected causes, which include:

# An overload of parasites, such as bloodsucking varroa mites, that have ravaged bees. The parasites reportedly spread to Hawaii only last week.

# Pesticide contamination. Hotly debated suspicion centers on whether "neonicotinoid" insecticides interfere with the foraging behavior of bees, leading them to abandon their hives.

# Fungal diseases such as Nosema ceranae, which is blamed for big bee losses in Spain. It was spotted by University of California-San Francisco researchers who were examining sample dead bees in late April.

# The rigors of traveling in trucks from crop to crop.

A complex problem

"We may have a perfect storm of many problems combining to kill the bees," Hackett says. And bees are social animals, which cue each other through "bee dances" to find food. "Something could be just disrupting bee society and causing the problem. That's very difficult to tease out."

Weaver says the beekeeper federation is "bombarded with lots of interesting theories," including "far-fetched ideas like cell phones," the notion that radio waves from mobile phones are zapping the bees' direction-sensing abilities.

"But right now there's not a lot of evidence to support any of these theories," Weaver says. "We think science is the only way to get to the bottom of this."

Rueden speculates that perhaps genetically altered crops are the culprit, crops that have little nutritional value in their pollen. But that is just a guess.

Bennett, of Greenville, also blames pesticides for the losses.

"There is no doubt in my mind and just wait until after June 15 when the pesticide applications start," he said. "They are getting pollen that is killing the bees."

The USDA spends about $9 million a year on bee research, Hackett says, about half of it focused on breeding bees resistant to mites. California is undertaking a five-year, $5 million project to examine insecticides, hive care and transport as well, he says.

Weaver says researchers need perhaps $50 million over the next five years to cover studies, deeper analysis of the "leading suspects" and a national surveillance system.

"Creating healthier bees, with a good diet, better able to fight disease is the best thing we can do right now," Hackett says. Otherwise, "when you sit down to dinner, the question will be what sort of grain do you want - corn or wheat or rice - because that's about all the choice we'll have left."