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Scientists Seek Answers to Bee Disappearances

By Bob Ewing     Jun 15, 2007 in Environment
Scientists looking for the reasons why honeybees are dying are focusing on pesticides and a new pathogen as being the guilty parties in this case that has puzzled beekeepers and researchers in several countries.
Maryann Frazier, a senior extension associate in Penn State University's entomology department has expresses concern that after months of study, researchers are finding it difficult to determine any one source that might be the cause.
"Two things right now ... that are really keeping us focused are the pathogen and the role of pesticides," Frazier said.
The research into what has become known as colony collapse disorder is being lead by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and researchers from Penn State University. Meanwhile, out in the field, commercial beekeepers such as David Hackenberg are not sitting back and waiting for the results to roll in.
In Hackenberg’s case, he is contacting commercial growers and asking whether they use pesticides in their fields before he bring his bees over to pollinate the crop. Like other commercial beekeepers Hackenberg moves his bees around the country providing pollination service that range from oranges in Florida to blueberries in Maine.
Hackenberg was the first beekeeper to report the problems that he was having with his bees to researchers at Penn States. He is certain that pesticides are the culprits and one type of pesticide, neonicotinoids, is the most likely to be killing his income generators (bees).
Hackenberg’s son runs an apiary and may need to raise his prices to compensate for the losses he has experienced. This price increase, if it goes into effect, will ripple through the system and eventually the cost of the food that we buy will rise.
Jim Aucker, a beekeeper, living in Millville, was left with just 240 of his 1,200 hives earlier this spring after the illness struck. He has been able to increase the number of hive up to almost 600 and he is convinced pesticides are playing a role.
"I have found spray materials in our dead hives. Whether it's 100 percent the cause, I'm not sure, but I'm positive it's not helping," Aucker said.
Aucker will not return to growers’ field where he suspects a pesticide problem may exist.
One concern that researchers and others have is the possibility that the immune system of the bees have been weakened by mites as well as pathogens and pesticides. This complicates the problem and may make it difficult to find a solution.
One of the major producers of neonicotinoid pesticides which have been on the market since 1994 is Bayer Crop Science.
"We have done a significant amount of research on our products, and we are comfortable this it is not the cause.The current research indicates that a number of nonchemical causes may be to blame," " said company spokesman John Boyne, an entomologist by training.
Bayer is cooperating with federal and university scientists.
Another complication to an increasingly complex story is that some fruit and vegetable growers are using pesticides in ways other than the directions on labels, said University of Montana bee expert Jerry Bromenshenk.
To date 35 states have reported instances of colony collapse disorder. Similar reports have come from France and Canada. It is time to consider what can be done to find alternative means of pollination, alternative crops that provide food and are pollinated by wind or other pollinators, for example.
As well, we need to encourage farmers and others to grow bee attracting plants in and around their properties to encourage the bees to come back, if that is still possible.
More about Pesticides, Pathogens, Bees