Beekeepers in 22 states across the country have reported huge disappearances of their bees. And it’s a total mystery as to where they’ve gone.
I saw a report about this on the CBS Evening News a few weeks ago and have since seen more press accounts of the situation. And no one seems to know what’s really going on.
"Colonies are going down. The bees aren't dead in the box or aren't out front," said Jerry Bromenshenk, a bee researcher at the University of Montana in the CBS report. "They've just disappeared. Just vanished."
While parasites and disease have depleted bee populations in the past, there were traces of the dead bees left behind for scientists to analyze and figure out what’s happened. In these cases, huge numbers of bees kept by beekeepers, hundreds of hives and thousands of bees, within just a few days.
The loss of so many bees could have a huge impact on our human food chain. One of every three food items we chuck into our mouths each day is the direct result of the work of honey bees.
They’re hard work of popping from flower to flower pollinates the plants that give us vegetables and fruits we eat each day. Without the bees, and that pollinating action, those plants won’t bear their fruits.
Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman looked a the situation a couple days ago. Talking to a researcher at the University of Minnesota, he discovered that some of our large-scale agricultural practices may be “burning out” bees on their vital work.
Dr. Marla Spivak says that monoculture farming – the practice of planting one time of crop in a huge field for years and years – has led to a reduction in the amount of honey a bee colony produces. Over the past few years, that average has dipped from 100 pounds a year to 80.
On top of that, he points to the large-scale commercial beekeeping colonies where bees are trucked around the country to do pollination work around the country. They’re maybe being stretched too far in their work.
Also, the problems don’t seem to be impacting hobby beekeepers here in Minnesota. I didn’t know it, but Minnesota is one of the top five honey-producing states in the country, and the vast majority of those bees are tended by amateur keepers.
Scientists have unraveled the honeybee’s genetic code. Information was ascertained pertaining to the honeybee’s complex social behavior patterns, keen sense of smell and African origin. This is the third insect to have its genome mapped. Other insects which have had their genome mapped include the fruit fly and mosquito.
University of Minnesota professor Marla Spivak studies honeybees. She's fighting a parasite that has killed up to half of all North American bees in the last year.
Spivak leads a bee-breeding program that produces queen bees that remove larvae infested with Varroa sp. mites from their hives. (The mites suck blood from the bees, especially developing ones, weakening them and shortening their lifespan. Infested emerging bees may be missing wings and legs. And an untreated infestation can kill an entire honeybee colony.)
Humans used two chemicals against the mites for years, but the mites have recently become resistant to both and have made a big comeback, destroying honeybee colonies across the country. But beekeepers using Spivak's queen bees have experienced only minor losses.
Don't think humans depend on bees? Think again. Honeybees pollinate about a third of our diet and dozens of agricultural crops. The mite problem affects even the dairy industry, since the cattle feed crops alfalfa and clover are honeybee pollinated, not wind pollinated like most grasses.
Many, many "pest" species are developing resistance to the chemicals we use to control them. Do you worry about this trend? Do you see alternatives to chemical pest control? Would you be willing to pay more for food products that are chemical free?
Jacqueline M. Kozisek of the University of New Orleans has been studying the fossil record to understand the history of the tropical honeybee. A specific species of honeybee, Cretotrigona prisca, can be found frozen in amber in rocks dated before and after the impact at the Chixilub that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs with a nuclear winter. If the climate changed dramatically enough to kill of the dinosaurs then how was this tropical honeybee able to survive through this time? Want to learn more?