We're in the middle of a bee emergency. Albert Einstein said, "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live." A mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder is causing agricultural honeybees nationwide to abandon their hives and disappear. It's a kind of mass suicide in the bee world.

Entomologist Jerry Bromenshenk says, "Individual beekeepers are really taking a beating. A guy down in Oklahoma lost 80% of his 13,000 colonies in the last month. In Florida, there are a whole lot of people facing 40, 60 and 80 percent losses. That’s huge."

With CCD, most adult honeybees abandon a hive and disappear, abandoning the queen and a remnant of younger bees. This is unheard of, since normally a bee colony will do almost anything to protect its queen. Since the tasks done in the hive are very stratified, bees cannot survive on their own.

One of the strongest instincts that bees have is protecting and nurturing the next generation, but with CCD, the cells of young bees in the pupa stage are not covered and protected by their older sisters, probably because most of the adult bees have left. Dead adult bees aren't even found near the hive; they are just gone.

Bromenshenk says, "We don’t want to panic the beekeeper industry because we are not sure it's time to push the panic button yet, but we do know this is real, it's severe and it's widespread."

Field technician and self-professed bee lover Scott Debnam describes visits to the impacted bee yards as "spooky," and says, "Fortunately the sites I've visited have been recovering, but in Georgia I saw a lot of small colonies, a lot of uncapped brood and a lot of early-stage brood. The adults had flown the coop."


WORCESTER—  A virus affecting the state’s honeybee population is being closely watched to see whether it will have broader implications on prices.

“The bee population is being threatened and if that happens, food prices will skyrocket,” said Kenneth Warchol of Northbridge, the state apiary inspector. “Fifty percent of all food crops are pollinated by honeybees.”

Mr. Warchol is federally certified to check the 20,000 honeybee hives in the state. In July, when hives are at their peak, 60,000 honeybees are contained in one hive or colony. Mr. Warchol’s primary role is to keep the bee population safe, and that responsibility is being jeopardized by a virus of unknown origins.
 
It has been determined that mites transfer the virus within the honeybee colony by attacking honeybee larvae and young adults. Once the parasites make contact with the hive, they cannot be eradicated, he said.

Last fall, Mr. Warchol started receiving reports of healthy, thriving honeybee hives dying out within one or two weeks. Over the winter, the bees have been dormant, sealed in their beehives. The honeybees’ condition won’t be known until the hives become active again by late next month.

“This virus is comparable to how the black plague wiped out people in the Middle Ages,” Mr. Warchol said. “There were a lot of dead hives in the fall, and the virus spreads from one beehive to the next. Left unchecked, it will wipe out the population.” He added that he has notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to Mr. Warchol, there were reports of a heavy mite population last year and mites have been a cyclical problem for bees since the 1990s.

“Last fall was the first major disappearance of entire hives,” Mr. Warchol said. “Researchers are trying to narrow the virus down. Big commercial beehives have been ravaged in Florida and Louisiana by this virus.”

The last time there was a heavy mite infestation in Worcester County was in 1995, when 80 percent of beehives were wiped out.

“Hopefully it’s not going to be that bad this year, but we could easily see 50, 60, even 70 percent of beehives totally wiped out,” Mr. Warchol said. “There’s a delicate balance here. Thriving crops are dependent upon the pollination by honeybees who seek nectar. Without the honeybees, without the pollination, crops will be sparse.”   Beekeepers throughout the United States have been losing between 50 and 90 percent of their honeybees over the past six months, perplexing scientists, driving honey prices higher and threatening fruit and vegetable production.

At a House Agricultural Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., today, members of various organizations came together to share their concerns about what they have been calling the "Colony Collapse Disorder," or CCD.
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Honeybees have been mysteriously dying across the United States, sending honey prices higher and threatening the agriculture industry.

Beginning in October 2006, beekeepers from 24 states reported that hundreds of thousands of their bees were dying and their colonies were being devastated.

In December 2006, beekeepers' associations, scientists and officials formed the CCD working group, in hopes of identifying the cause and solving the problem of CCD.

Most of the beekeepers who have recently reported heavy losses associated with CCD are large commercial migratory beekeepers, some of whom are losing 50 percent to 90 percent of their colonies.
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Moreover, surviving colonies are often so weak that they are not viable pollinating or honey-producing units. Losses have been reported in migratory operations in California, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, but in February some larger keepers of nonmigratory bees, particularly from the mid-Atlantic region and the Pacific Northwest reported significant losses of more than 50 percent.

Testifying in front of the committee this morning, Caird E. Rexroad, from the Agricultural Research Service, said that although his agency has a variety of theories as to what might be causing CCD, it believes stress on the bees might be the major motive.

"We believe that some form of stress may be suppressing immune systems of bees, ultimately contributing to CCD." The main four types of stresses that Rexroad identified were migratory stresses, mites, pathogens and pesticides.

According to the National Agricultural Statistic Service, honey production declined by 11 percent in 2006, and honey prices per pound increased 14 percent, from 91.8 cents in 2005 to 104.2 cents in 2006. Daren Jantzy, with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, told CNN that these statistics are based on numbers collected mostly before the true impact of CCD was noted. Its effect will be more noticeable when the 2007 statistics are collected.

And the impact goes far beyond direct bee products like honey and wax. Three-quarters of the world's 250,000 flowering plants - including many fruits and vegetables - require pollination to reproduce.

Dr. May R. Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois, believes the economic impact of the decline in bees could be disastrous.

"Though economists differ in calculating the exact dollar value of honeybee pollination, virtually all estimates range in the billions of dollars," she told representatives at the House hearing.

But this is not a new problem. Over the past two decades, concern has risen around the world about the decline of pollinators of all descriptions. During this period in the United States, the honeybee, the world's premier pollinator, experienced a dramatic 40 percent decline, from nearly six million to less than two and a half million.

In 2005, for the first time in 85 years, the United States was forced to import honeybees in order to meet its pollination demands. Berenbaum says that "if honeybees numbers continued to decline at the rates documented from 1989 to 1996, managed honeybees ... will cease to exist in the United States by 2035."