Bees feeling the sting of huge population plunge

While multiple factors appear to be involved in colony collapse, a deadly bee virus may be key.
While multiple factors appear to be involved in colony collapse, a deadly bee virus may be key.Corbis
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Chemical pesticides, viruses, mites and many other problems have unleashed "the perfect storm" against honeybee populations worldwide. But beekeepers are fighting back in a valiant attempt to stave off the disastrous bee population decline.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honey-producing colonies have experienced a population drop of more than 60 percent in the past 60 years. The United Kingdom's honeybee population has halved in recent years, with declines also reported in the Middle East, Asia and other parts of Europe.

Aside from ecosystem issues, the problem warrants human attention because 70 percent of the crop species that feed 90 percent of all people in the world require bees for pollination.

"Loss of genetic diversity resulting from convenient-but-unhealthy breeding practices, weakened immune system strength combined with exposure to unfamiliar diseases and pests, which are the result of vastly speeded up global trade, plus the slow deterioration of generation after generation of bees' repeated exposure to non-lethal doses of pesticides has created what many researchers call 'the perfect storm' of combined impacts," North Carolina-based beekeeping activist N'ann Harp told Discovery News.

"What we are witnessing in essence is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back," added Harp, who is the founder of Friends of Honeybees.

She is helping to launch the international initiative Buzz for Bees that hopes to better inform the public about the problems and to raise funds for bee research. Harp also made headlines recently after assisting in the safe relocation of an enormous honeybee colony that had established itself within a barn on the historic Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Harp believes one of the greatest challenges facing U.S. agriculture is the long-standing tradition of moving hundreds of thousands of hives by trailer tractor around the country on an annual basis for pollination duties following crop blooms.

"Bees get on and off the trucks like tourists on tour buses," she said. "Those who may be sick spread disease to the local bees. They also pick up new viruses or pests they may not have had when they arrived and spread them at the next stop-over."

This damaging cycle ramped into crisis mode in recent years, contributing to what's known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. While multiple factors appear to be involved, a deadly bee virus may be key.

"The virus causing CCD came to us when U.S. beekeepers were importing Australian packaged bees to meet the high pollination demand of the almond growers here in California," Helene Marshall of Marshall's Farm Natural Honey told Discovery News.

As of Dec. 21, 2010, the USDA, by Federal Order, removed Australia from the list of approved regions for the importation of adult honeybees. It's too early to tell, but many experts are hopeful that the ban will help to curb CCD.

Silvia Canas, director of the Spanish beekeeping organization Vida Apicola, is also concerned about pesticide usage, while Maureen Maxwell of BeesOnline expressed worry over aggressive mites from China that wound up in the widespread Australian and New Zealand honeybees and are still circulating.

Marshall said she has "run out of ways" to control the mites. "Beekeepers should breed from their strongest queens to create genetically superior bees," she advises.

Marshall is trying to do just that and has even partnered with San Francisco's landmark Fairmont Hotel, which now has honeybee hives in its culinary garden. Beekeeping is also taking place at other Fairmont hotels in Dallas, Toronto, Vancouver, China, Kenya and St. Andrews, Canada.

"It is wonderful that even in urban area backyards, businesses and hotels, such as our own San Francisco Fairmont, bees are now welcomed," Marshall said. "The presence of the bees in public places has definitely created more awareness to city and country dwellers alike."

"After all," Marshall said, "even though our honeybees are not native to the U.S. (they're native to South and South East Asia), they lived in San Francisco before we did!"