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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Science

Claudia Cowan

San Francisco, CA

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The Plight of the Honey Bee

April 13, 2010 - 12:41 PM | by: Claudia Cowan

 

For a fourth straight year, bee hives aren’t buzzing with activity the way they should. 

For no apparent reason, commercial honey bees are flying off to die, leaving beekeepers, the insect equivalent of cattle ranchers, reporting losses of half their livestock.

Outside Tucson, Arizona, Roy Wilson has been raising honey bees for five years, and puts their role as pollinators into perspective.

“It supposedly takes 120 visits to make a fully developed watermelon,” he says. “But if you don’t get those visits, you’re not gonna get that watermelon.” 

Watermelon, or many other fruits, vegetables, and nuts we enjoy:

Nearly a third of America’s food supply requires pollination.

The cause of the die-off, called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” remains a vexing mystery.

At the USDA’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, scientists say a number of factors are to blame, including poor nutrition, pesticides, and the parasitic Varrola mite that preys on baby bees.

While there is cause for concern, researchers are quick to add there’s no cause for panic– at least not yet.  “The colonies that we have, and the ability of beekeepers to keep colonies healthy and use them to pollinate crops is still very  much here with us, and United States beekeepers are extremely good at that,” says Gloria DiGrande-Hoffman, a lead researcher at the Center.

So far, there have been enough bees available to pollinate crops like apples, berries and avocado’s, and prices have remained relatively stable. But if the problem isn’t resolved, the health of the beekeeping industry could be in peril.  ”Beekeepers are small business people and when they experience these losses, it’s difficult for them to recover if these losses occur year after year after year,” DiGrande-Hoffman says.

Beyond that, we may see impacts on crops like almonds that are pollinated early in the year, before beekeepers have had enough time to replenish their hives.

If there aren’t enough bees to make enough visits, the result could be reduced production, and higher prices — a sting consumers will feel… in their wallet.

-Claudia Cowan, Tucson, Arizona

Photo Gallery
Beekeeper Roy Wilson inspects his colony of honeybees. That one frame represents a few pounds of honey.
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  • Beekeeper Roy Wilson inspects his colony of honeybees. That one frame represents a few pounds of honey.
  • Boxes of commercial honey bees are shipped from state to state to pollinate a third of America's food supply.
  • For a 4th straight year, bee hives are not buzzing the way they should, the result of
  • Protective suits are a must around bees. Seeing through the mesh visor takes some getting used to.