News Analysis: Commerical Honeybees In Trouble

This winter, commercial honeybees have been dieing off in record numbers across the country, including here in Pennsylvania. Right now, growers are holding their collective breath to see if there will be enough honeybees to pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops this spring and summer. Ann Murray joins Matthew Craig to talk about what's come to be known as "Colony Collapse Disorder."

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OPEN: This winter, commercial honeybees have been dieing off in record numbers across the country- including here in Pennsylvania. Right now, growers are holding their collective breath to see if there will be enough honeybees to pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops this spring and summer. Ann Murray is here to talk about what's come to be known as "Colony Collapse Disorder."

M: What is Colony Collapse Disorder?

A: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the name that's been given to the latest, maybe most serious, die-off of honeybee colonies across the country. It's characterized by sudden colony death with a loss of adult bees in and around the hives. In some cases, the queen bee and a small number of survivor bees may be in the brood nest. Bee keepers have reported losses of 50 to 90% of their hives.


M: It sounds like the bees just disappear. What do researchers think happens to the bees?


A: They don't know but it's possible bees get disoriented and fly off and die at a distance from the hives.


M: When was it first identified?

A: During the last three months of 2006, the Ag Science College at Penn State began to get reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honeybee colonies dying in the eastern United States. In fact, the first report came from a Pennsylvania beekeeper who was wintering his bees in Florida. Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses.

M: What do researchers think is the cause?

A: They don't know for sure yet but researchers are looking at mites and associated diseases, some unknown pathogenic disease and pesticide contamination or poisoning.

M: In that case, what have they eliminated as possible causes?

A: Feeding practices seemed to vary among the beekeepers whose bees experienced CCD so that's one factor that's been eliminated. Beekeepers used different chemical products like antibiotics and miticide and applied them in a number of ways. That's another possible cause marked off the list. And the ways the bees were "employed" were assorted: some were used in pollination and some in honey production and others in combinations of both so that practice has been eliminated, too.


M: Why is it such a significant loss of bees?

A: Because it threatens the pollination industry. Commercial beekeepers are hired to bring their bees to farms to pollinate crops. It also threatens the production of commercial honey in the United States. The number of managed honey bee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago, so agricultural states like Pennsylvania can't really afford these big losses.

M: How do growers in Pennsylvania depend on honeybees?

A: According to Penn State's ag college, the state's $45 million apple crop -- the fourth largest in the country -- is completely dependent on insects for pollination, and 90 percent of that pollination comes from commercial honey bees so the value of honey bee pollination to apples is about $40 million. In total, honey bee pollination contributes about $55 million to the value of crops in the state.

M: What other crops besides apples are pollinated by honeybees?

A: Besides apples, crops that depend at least in part on honeybee pollination include peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

M: Who's researching Colony Collapse Disorder?

A: A working group of university faculty researchers, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension people and industry reps is working to figure out the cause or causes of Colony Collapse Disorder and to help beekeepers in the interim. The group includes Penn State, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agriculture departments in Pennsylvania and Florida.

M: What can growers do in the interim?

A: Plan well ahead. They need to contact beekeepers as soon as possible to see if the colonies they are counting on for pollination will be available.


M: Is Colony Collapse Disorder representative of the loss of other pollinators in the US and around the world?

A: It's very serious. Long-term trends for several wild bee species -- especially bumblebees -- as well as some butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds also show population drops. Much more data have been gathered on pollinators in Europe, where researchers have definitively documented declines and even extinctions.

M: Thanks, Ann.

A: Thank you, Matthew.