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Mystery illness killing honeybees

Feb. 28, 2007
Asso­ciated Press

A mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness is kill­ing tens of thou­sands of hon­ey­bee col­o­nies across the U.S., threat­en­ing hon­ey pro­duc­tion, the live­li­hood of bee­keep­ers and pos­si­bly crops that need bees for pol­li­na­tion.

Re­search­ers are scram­bling to find the cause of the ail­ment, called Col­o­ny Col­lapse Dis­or­der.

Re­ports of un­u­su­al col­o­ny deaths have come from at least 22 U.S. states. Some af­fect­ed com­mer­cial bee­keep­ers — who of­ten keep thou­sands of col­o­nies — have re­ported los­ing more than 50 per­cent of their bees. A col­o­ny can have rough­ly 20,000 bees in the win­ter, and up to 60,000 in the sum­mer.

“We have seen a lot of things hap­pen in 40 years, but this is the epit­o­me of it al­l,” Dave Hack­en­berg, of Lewisburg, Penn.-based Hack­en­berg Api­ar­ies, said by phone from Fort Meade, Fla., where he was work­ing with his bees.

The coun­try’s bee pop­u­la­tion had al­ready been shocked in re­cent years by a ti­ny, par­a­sit­ic bug called the var­roa mite, which has de­stroyed more than half of some bee­keep­ers’ hives and dev­as­tat­ed most wild hon­ey­bee pop­u­la­tions.

Along with be­ing pro­duc­ers of hon­ey, com­mer­cial bee col­o­nies are im­por­tant to ag­ri­cul­ture as pol­li­na­tors, along with some birds, bats and oth­er in­sects. A re­cent re­port by the Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil not­ed that in or­der to bear fruit, three-quarters of all flow­er­ing plants — in­clud­ing most food crops and some that pro­vide fi­ber, drugs and fu­el — re­ly on pol­li­na­tors for fer­ti­li­za­tion.

Hack­en­berg, 58, was first to re­port Col­o­ny Col­lapse Dis­or­der to bee re­search­ers at Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty. He no­ti­fied them in No­vem­ber when he was down to about 1,000 col­o­nies — af­ter hav­ing started the fall with 2,900.

“We are go­ing to take bees we got and make more bees ... but it’s cost­ly,” he said. “We are talk­ing about ma­jor bucks. You can on­ly take so many blows so many times.”

One bee­keep­er who trav­eled with two truck­loads of bees to Cal­i­for­nia to help pol­li­nate al­mond trees found near­ly all of his bees dead up­on ar­ri­val, said Den­nis va­nEn­gles­dorp, act­ing state api­a­rist for the Penn­syl­va­nia De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture.

“I would char­ac­ter­ize it as se­ri­ous,” said Dan­iel Weav­er, pres­ident of the Amer­i­can Bee­keep­ing Fed­er­a­tion. “Whether it threat­ens the api­cul­ture in­dus­try in the Unit­ed States or not, that’s up in the air.”

Sci­en­tists at Penn State, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana and the U.S. De­part­ment of Ag­ri­cul­ture are among the quick­ly grow­ing group of re­search­ers and in­dus­try of­fi­cials try­ing to solve the mys­tery.


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A mysterious illness is killing tens of thousands of honeybee colonies across the U.S., threatening honey production, the livelihood of beekeepers and possibly crops that need bees for pollination.