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Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms
By MICHAEL WINES
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.
“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”
In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.
In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.
The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”
Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow.
Bret Adee, who is an owner, with his father and brother, of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the nation’s largest beekeeper, described mounting losses.
“We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss,” he said in an interview here this week.
“They looked beautiful in October,” Mr. Adee said, “and in December, they started falling apart, when it got cold.”
Mr. Dahle said he had planned to bring 13,000 beehives from Montana — 31 tractor-trailers full — to work the California almond groves. But by the start of pollination last month, only 3,000 healthy hives remained.
Annual bee losses of 5 percent to 10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. But after colony collapse disorder surfaced around 2005, the losses approached one-third of all bees, despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure their health.
Nor is the impact limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.
Almonds are a bellwether. Eighty percent of the nation’s almonds grow here, and 80 percent of those are exported, a multibillion-dollar crop crucial to California agriculture. Pollinating up to 800,000 acres, with at least two hives per acre, takes as many as two-thirds of all commercial hives.
This past winter’s die-off sent growers scrambling for enough hives to guarantee a harvest. Chris Moore, a beekeeper in Kountze, Tex., said he had planned to skip the groves after sickness killed 40 percent of his bees and left survivors weakened.
“But California was short, and I got a call in the middle of February that they were desperate for just about anything,” he said. So he sent two truckloads of hives that he normally would not have put to work.
Bee shortages pushed the cost to farmers of renting bees to $200 per hive at times, 20 percent above normal. That, too, may translate into higher prices for food.
Precisely why last year’s deaths were so great is unclear. Some blame drought in the Midwest, though Mr. Dahle lost nearly 80 percent of his bees despite excellent summer conditions. Others cite bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides. Still others blame viruses.
But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used to control pests.
While each substance has been certified, there has been less study of their combined effects. Nor, many critics say, have scientists sufficiently studied the impact of neonicotinoids, the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths.
The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.
Neonics, as farmers call them, are applied in smaller doses than older pesticides. They are systemic pesticides, often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it.
Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded — often in a matter of days — neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous.
“Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing.”
Research to date on neonicotinoids “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns,” the president of CropLife America, Jay Vroom, said Wednesday. The group represents more than 90 pesticide producers.
He said the group nevertheless supported further research. “We stand with science and will let science take the regulation of our products in whatever direction science will guide it,” Mr. Vroom said.
A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the E.P.A. last week, saying it exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids. The agency has begun an accelerated review of their impact on bees and other wildlife.
The European Union has proposed to ban their use on crops frequented by bees. Some researchers have concluded that neonicotinoids caused extensive die-offs in Germany and France.
Neonicotinoids are hardly the beekeepers’ only concern. Herbicide use has grown as farmers have adopted crop varieties, from corn to sunflowers, that are genetically modified to survive spraying with weedkillers. Experts say some fungicides have been laced with regulators that keep insects from maturing, a problem some beekeepers have reported.
Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.
“Where do you start?” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”
Experts say nobody knows. But Mr. Adee, who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about such issues, said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.
Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”
[view article on nytimes.com]
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Last year, after an episode on HBO’s series True Blood where Bill (Stephen Moyer) said to Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) “Oh good! The world needs more beekeepers!” the actors generously donated a few sweet items to our silent auction for our annual HoneyLove Yellow Tie Event!
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by Sid Perkins via news.sciencemag.org
The electric fields that build up on honey bees as they fly, flutter their wings, or rub body parts together may allow the insects to talk to each other, a new study suggests. Tests show that the electric fields, which can be quite strong, deflect the bees’ antennae, which, in turn, provide signals to the brain through specialized organs at their bases.
Scientists have long known that flying insects gain an electrical charge when they buzz around. That charge, typically positive, accumulates as the wings zip through the air—much as electrical charge accumulates on a person shuffling across a carpet. And because an insect’s exoskeleton has a waxy surface that acts as an electrical insulator, that charge isn’t easily dissipated, even when the insect lands on objects, says Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin in Germany.
Although researchers have suspected for decades that such electrical fields aid pollination by helping the tiny grains stick to insects visiting a flower, only more recently have they investigated how insects sense and respond to such fields. Just last month, for example, a team reported that bumblebees may use electrical fields to identify flowers recently visited by other insects from those that may still hold lucrative stores of nectar and pollen. A flower that a bee had recently landed on might have an altered electrical field, the researchers speculated.
Now, in a series of lab tests, Menzel and colleagues have studied how honey bees respond to electrical fields. In experiments conducted in small chambers with conductive walls that isolated the bees from external electrical fields, the researchers showed that a small, electrically charged wand brought close to a honey bee can cause its antennae to bend. Other tests, using antennae removed from honey bees, indicated that electrically induced deflections triggered reactions in a group of sensory cells, called the Johnston’s organ, located near the base of the antennae. In yet other experiments, honey bees learned that a sugary reward was available when they detected a particular pattern of electrical field.
Altogether, these tests suggest that the electrical fields that build up on bees due to their flight or movement are stimuli that could be used in social communication, the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The team’s findings “are very significant,” says Fred Dyer, a behavioral biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “I hadn’t heard about the possibility that honey bees could use electrical fields.”
One of the honey bees’ forms of communication is the “waggle dance.” When the insects have located a dense patch of flowers or a source of water, they skitter across the honeycomb in their hive in a pattern related to the direction of and the distance to the site. Fellow worker bees then take that information and forage accordingly. The biggest mystery about the dance, Dyer says, is which senses the bees use—often in the deep, dark recesses of their hive—to conduct their communication. “People have proposed a variety of methods: direct contact between bees, air currents from the buzzing of their wings, odors, even vibrations transmitted through the honeycomb itself,” he says.
But the team’s new findings introduce yet another mode of communication available to the insects, Dyer says. He notes that the group found that antenna deflections induced by an electrically charged honey bee wing are about 10 times the size of those that would be caused by airflow from the wing fluttering at the same distance—a sign that electrical fields could be an important signal.
“They show that the electrical fields are there and that they’re within the range of what the animal can sense,” Dyer says. “Their claim of evidence is quite compelling.”
By Lou Fancher via mercurynews.com
Dr. Gordon Frankie said native bees have preferences, and knowing what they like can improve the health of your garden.
“If they have a choice, they’ll go after native plants,” said Frankie, a professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley. He and Steve Gentry, a founding member of the Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association, teamed up for a recent Lafayette Library Foundation Science Cafe presentation.
Frankie’s point — that local gardeners hoping to attract Agapostemon texanus or Xylocopa varipuncta, two local native bee species, should include native plants in their gardening plans. And mulching should be done lightly because 70 percent of all native bees nest in the ground and can’t burrow through materials heavier than soil.
A project at Frog Hollow Farm and other Brentwood farms is demonstrating the impact of placing native plants between crop rows.
Urban areas are ideal for bees, Frankie claimed, because of the diverse food supply they offer. The Oxford Tract Bee Garden he and his team of researchers planted allows them to monitor and categorize bees’ attraction to native and nonnative plants. A 10-city survey across California is providing a detailed picture of the bee population. San Diego, he said, is the worst city for attracting bees.
“It’s their gardening culture: No one is using diverse, floral plants,” Frankie said.
On the other end of the spectrum, a 30-by-30-foot garden in Ukiah had 68 bee species, and Santa Cruz is a hotbed beehive community. (The Bay Area is fifth on that list.)
Gentry, known by local residents as “Bee Man” — although he is considering an upgrade to “Emperor of Bees” — began the popular event’s 60-minute talk with a bucket.
“All of these products from bees are helpful to humans,” he declared, pulling hunks of beeswax and jars of honey, pollen and actual bees from the container. “Their history goes back thousands of years.”
Within five minutes, Gentry had advocated (beeswax is used for lubricants in cosmetics, candles, wax-resist dyeing and food preserving), acknowledged (“We have some hindrance about eating insects, but watch a bear break into a bee’s nest. He’ll eat the whole thing,” he said), and advertised (pollen is the new superfood, with protein, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, according to Gentry).
He also shared a 30-year-old epiphany he had while watching a black bear and her two cubs demolish a rotted tree while feasting on termites.
“I wasn’t the first person to see natural things. Forty thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers watched bears, bees and insects, too. The timeline is long,” he said.
Skipping through honeybee history, from Middle Eastern origins to monks in monasteries needing dependable light sources to small farmers before World War I who kept just enough hives to feed their families and pollinate their crops, Gentry landed on the contemporary world’s bee dilemmas.
“Industrialization changed farms. They became bigger, and now, large pollination contracts and commercial beekeeping are driving the business. (More than a million) hives are brought into the central Southern California valley for pollinating almonds each year.”
Frankie, whose business is less about keeping bees and more about watching them, asked the Science Cafe audience of gardeners, beekeepers and general science fans a series of questions.
Delighting at stumping his listeners, he said 1,600 bee species were attracted to California’s 5,000 flowering plants, drawing a hefty percentage of the United States’ 4,000 total bee species.
“Notice, you are not on their list,” he said. “Bees are vegetarians. They’re not after you or your burgers. Wasps are the ‘meat bees’ after your burgers.”
Generating a local buzz
The University of California Press will publish Gordon Frankie’s findings in a forthcoming book, “Native Bees and Their Flowers in Urban California Gardens.” Bee appreciators who don’t want to wait can find information at http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/index.html and diablobees.org.
Gardener’s Glory is Cape Town’s urban honey brand. Raw, untreated, unfiltered honey from Southern Suburb gardens.
At yesterday’s Bee Rescue we had some awesome helpers:
Maggie & Colin Walsh and their son Iggie!
*HoneyLove story begins @ 25:58
Learn more here: http://gardenerd.com/gardening-for-geeks/index.html
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