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The bee questions that bug you

If a virus is killing off bees, is it safe for humans to consume honey, or bee pollen, or royal jelly? Are organic bees less vulnerable? What about all these other suggested causes of the bees’ “disappearing disease”? If you see some strange bee behavior, who you gonna call? We handle these questions and more in the wake of the journal Science’s latest study on Colony Collapse Disorder.

Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is characterized by the rapid disappearance of a bee colony even though there seems to be no reason for them to vanish. One week, the hive seems to be buzzing, with plenty of food. The next week, the bees are gone to who knows where. Scientists took note of CCD's rise a year ago and have suggested a range of causes for the phenomenon - including parasites, pesticide poisoning, global warming and the stress of the bees being moved around by commercial pollination operations.

The latest research cites a correlation with another factor, the presence of a little-known virus that was first isolated in Israel. But the mystery has not yet been solved, and researchers say they still have more questions than answers. users had questions as well, and to answer them, I consulted research entomologist Jay Evans at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and reviewed my notes from past interviews. Here's a sampling of the frequently asked questions:

I was wondering if there in any research on possible effects to humans. I personally take bee pollen every day for vitamins, minerals, amino acids, energy, etc. Believe it or not, I also take it as a possible antivirus [measure]. My children take daily spoons full of honey to help with allergies. Any thoughts? - William Brewer

"Honey and pollen, and more recently royal jelly, have been ruled out for any human diseases," Evans said. He explained that the suspect virus in particular, known as the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, "is not on the radar screen for any disease outside of honeybees."

Evans said honey can contain bacterial spores that cause botulism in human infants. "That very rarely gets into the honey from the plants," he said, and that's why experts advise against feeding honey to infants less than a year old.

As for bee pollen and royal jelly, the virus may not be a concern, but some skeptics say those substances are of dubious health value and may bring on allergy attacks instead of warding them off. Bee propolis - the "glue" that holds the hives together - may have some health properties but also poses an allergy risk, according to the published literature.

If there are no dead bees being found, then how can we say for certain they are dying? Can the Africanized honey bees and their migration into the United States be a contributing factor if not a cause? Do we know if regular honeybees migrate and, if so, do we know anything about the patterns or timing? How long exactly have we been keeping track of bee movements?  If it is less than, say, 200 years, can we really rule out that this is just a pre-existing pattern? - Brad Schader

"They're not finding the dead bees in high numbers, which actually is a good indicator of what's going on," Evans said. If, for instance, pesticides were the primary factor behind the flight of the honeybee, scientists would expect to find bunches of dead bees lying around the hive. Instead, it looks as if the individual bees just fly off and die.

"Do they simply peter out and lose energy? Or do they actually get disoriented? Both of those have been tied to diseases in the past," Evans said.

Bee turnover rates are typically high during the summer foraging season, Evans acknowledged. "In the summer, a 20,000-bee colony will completely turn over in about 30 days," he said.

Penn State entomologist Diana Cox-Foster, the lead author for the Science study, provided some additional perspective in an e-mail. If statistics scare you, feel free to skip over these paragraphs:

"A nationwide survey initiated in spring 2007 by the Apiary Inspectors of America  (van Engelsdorp et al., 2007) suggests that a 17 percent loss of colonies is considered normal in an average year.  This is astonishing, given that one would be hard-pressed to find another agricultural commodity that could sustain a 17 percent loss annually. This same survey also documented a recent increase in losses across the nation. An estimated 22 percent of beekeepers suffered CCD and lost on average 44.5 percent of their operation.

"In Pennsylvania since 1930, bee colonies have regularly been inspected for disease; thus, data from Pennsylvania provide an ideal database to monitor changes in incidences of bee diseases. To determine the scope of CCD, Dennis vanEngelsdorp (the acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) in conjunction with Apiary Inspectors of America has conducted a recent survey of Pennsylvania beekeepers that reveals a significant number of colonies collapsing with CCD.

"Among beekeepers owning 43 percent of Pennsylvania colonies and responding to the survey, the CCD-suffering beekeepers lost an average of 73 percent of their hives (ranging from 55 to 100 percent), compared with non-CCD suffering beekeepers who lost an average of 25 percent of their colonies (ranging from 18 to 31 percent).  Of significance, those reporting CCD own a quarter of all bee colonies in Pennsylvania. These losses translate into limited pollination resources for Pennsylvania and increased costs to both growers and consumers.

"In Pennsylvania, the current cost of pollination has increased by 50 percent and may increase even more as the 2007 season progresses."

As for the Africanized honey bees, Evans noted that they've been around for a couple of decades in the American Southwest, and there doesn't seem to be any correlation between the onslaught of the "killer bees" and the rise of CCD.

Domesticated bees have been having a hard time in recent years, not just because of the competition from killer bees, but also because of the spread of parasites such as Varroa mites. A cold winter here or a dry summer there can also deal a blow to bee colonies.

"There are years, winters essentially, that are bad for bees - with maybe 30 percent mortality," Evans said. But Colony Collapse Disorder is a pattern of bee loss that scientists haven't seen much before.

"These colonies where the bees just disappeared, two weeks before they were very robust. That points to someting new, as opposed to the winter losses that we've seen," Evans said.

Cox-Foster theorized that bee disappearances may have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation to past virus infections: Something in the stressed-out bee might trigger an urge to flee or short-circuit its directional sense, in order to save the rest of the colony from infection.  

The bee death mystery was solved long, long ago. I have been shocked you and others in the media do not read more. Note the following [article]: "A parasite common to Asian bees has spread to Europe and the Americas and is behind the mass disappearance of honeybees in many countries... says a Spanish scientist.... the culprit is a microscopic parasite called Nosema ceranae. ..." - Stephen Stiltner

Scientists did mention Nosema in the latest report, and I referred to it in my article as well. "It's all over the place," Evans noted. "Both species of that parasite are common in the U.S., and you can't make a strong correlation with the actual syndrome."

There have been previous claims for a CCD-like syndrome called "disappearing disease," reportedly going back as far as 1915, and some entomologists have proposed that the malady is due to a combination of a Nosema-style parasitic attack plus a viral infection. "It's not inconceivable that they co-occur, and only when they're together is a cause and effect," Evans said.

But taken just by itself, the presence of the Nosema parasite is "a pretty poor indicator" for CCD, Evans said.

I recently read several articles about the honeybee die-off at the Organic Consumers Association that I found interesting. I would really like to know if it is true that "organic" bees are not suffering the die-off. - Cathy Evans 

"We tend to see this phenomenon more in larger commercial beekeepers who migrate," Jeff Pettis, a colleague of Evans' who worked on the latest study in Science, told reporters earlier this week. "So I think just by default, when you're organic-beekeeping, you tend to be a little more labor-intensive, and may not manage as many colonies, nor are you as migratory. I don't know, we've not looked in detail at that."

I suggest you Google for "france bees termidor" and the chemical Fipronil. This chemical was found to be directly responsible for the bee die-off in France and they have banned it. I think the chemical companies are pulling the wool over our eyes and sending us on a wild goose chase for viruses when the real cause of the die-off is insecticides. - Jeff

Cox-Foster said pesticides are "still on the table" as a contributing factor for CCD, and Evans agreed that Fipronil is a "serious chemical that's been shown to affect bees." Researchers are looking into the effects of a variety of pesticides, including a class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids.

"It's not good for bees, for sure, and its usage has increased, but the usage hasn't increased in the past year enough to show a sudden effect, in my opinion," Evans said. "Again, it's one of those things that needs to be ruled out more before we ignore it."

May I suggest the die-off is caused in large part by genetically engineered crops poisoning the bees. ... - Jim Dersch

Cox-Foster said genetically modified crops were "low on the list" of suspects for the cause of CCD. "The evidence to date ... shows that bees feeding on pollen from transgenic corn had as good a survivorship or better survivorship than bees feeding on normal pollen," she said. 

When I read my first "disappearing bees" article (being a keen gardener), I was very much concerned about the bee die-off and over the last few years have paid very much attention to any other articles that I happened upon. Then I read an article stating that the bee is not even indigenous to the U.S. They originally were European bees that were brought over by people that settled here. ... I have to begin to wonder if the bee problem is another excuse for scientists to obtain funding and grants to stir up something that isn't something we need to worry about. Other insects, the wind, birds and the natural order of things help pollinate our crops and according to the article, bees were not a part of that natural process on this continent. I am a firm believer that our importation of non-indigenous animals and insects has affected our natural balance for the worse. - Carrie

It's true that honeybees are not indigenous to the United States, but through the many years that the bees have been here, our economy has come to rely upon them for pollination (in addition to the honey). If all the honeybees were to disappear tomorrow, billions of dollars' worth of agricultural produce would be lost. Of course, scientists are looking at other means of pollination, including different species of bees. The situation may well change in the decades ahead - but adjusting to that changing environment will call for more research, not less.

After finding many dead bees on my driveway and some just walking around, eventually dying as well, I wondered where they were coming from until I discovered a large beehive in towards the top of the canopy of a tree in front of my house. ... After reading your article, I thought that someone locally may be interested in studying this colony which may be carrying some virus.  In writing your article, might you have a contact of someone in the Miami area that may be interested in this colony? - Fernando Horruitiner

The best nearby resource would be the agricultural extension service - in your case, the Miami-Dade County Extension Office.

If you have something you want to discuss with a knowledgeable community of beekeepers and researchers, Evans suggests joining the BEE-L discussion list. But as always with such forums, you'd do well to familiarize yourself with the list archives first.

And if you have a humdinger of a question, Evans recommends getting in contact with Jerry Hayes, who conveniently hangs out at Florida's Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection. Hayes' column for the American Bee Journal, titled "The Classroom," is as indispensable for bee lovers as "Car Talk" is for car lovers, Evans said. You'll find plenty there about Colony Collapse Disorder and other bee curiosities.