New Findings Help Honeybees
It was a strange and disturbing turn of events, like a Bermuda Triangle for bees; worker honeybees would leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen, never to return. Hive populations declined at an astounding pace, along with their food stores, causing many hives to crash over the winter. There have been plenty of environmental crises in the news, but the honeybee mystery hit especially close to home for many people. After all, humans and honeybees have lived together for centuries, partners in food, honey and wax production.
The Apiary Inspectors of America estimate that between 20 to 40 percent of honeybee colonies in the United States faced startling declines from late 2006 to 2010. Beekeepers in Europe and South America also lost significant numbers of hives. The disappearance of honeybees had a particularly high impact on farmers, who rely on colonies of European honeybees to pollinate everything from almonds to oranges. This impact extends to us all; Pollinator Partnership estimates that about a third of the food we eat come from animal-pollinated crops.
As with any mystery, hypotheses for the bee deaths abounded, some more likely than others. Was the decline due to the “bee rapture” or the pervasive presence of pesticides in agricultural areas? Was it genetically modified crops or vibrations from cell phone towers? Without knowing the source for this decline, scientists gave it a name, “Colony Collapse Disorder” (or CCD), and began the race to discover the cause.
Recently, there have been signs that scientists are closer to solving the CCD mystery. In the online journal PloS One, Army scientists in Maryland and entomologists in Montana announced that Colony Collapse Disorder results from the presence of both a fungus and a virus. Scientists at University of California at San Francisco had already noted the presence of the fungus, called N. ceranae, in dead honeybees, and RNA-viruses were also known in honeybee populations. However, by sampling thousands of bees and developing a unique software program to analyze the data, these scientists identified a fatal interaction between these two pathogens. These two pathogens are found in the honeybee gut and may inhibit the uptake of nutrients, slowly starving the bees.
These results are still just a first step to saving our precious Apis mellifera. Scientists are now trying to figure out how CCD spreads and what environmental factors might play significant roles in infection rates. In the meantime, there are steps that concerned citizens can take to help. Anyone can join local and national conservation groups and stay informed. The Pollinator Partnership website, http://www.pollinator.org/, is a wonderful educational resource. Gardeners can also become “Pollinator Protectors” by creating nectar and pollen-rich havens for bees and other beneficial insects and by avoiding pesticide use in the garden. Knowledge plus action equals power, and already, the world looks a little brighter for honeybees and humans alike.
Posted by Amy Yarger, Horticulturist
October 12, 2010