Costly mystery: Disappearing bee colonies
cut into $15 billion value to crops
By ARLENE MANNLEIN - H&R Staff Writer
DECATUR - Colony Collapse Disorder - the literal
disappearance of millions of honeybees - is ripe for speculation
because "it's such an amazing occurrence," said Gene
"When winter kill occurs (in a bee colony),
there is a slow dwindling of the population," said Robinson,
the G. William Arends professor of integrative biology at the
University of Illinois. "If there is a death in the colony,
you see the dead bees present.
"One of the symptoms of Colony Collapse
Disorder is there are no bees," he said. "Something
has put them over the edge."
The death of honeybees in such large numbers
is a concern for all parts of agriculture because of the bees'
role in the pollination process.
Pollination is responsible $15 billion in added
crop value, particularly for specialty crops such as almonds,
various nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables, according to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
"The nature of much of our agriculture in the United States
is such that a large number of honeybee colonies are needed for
a short period of time," Robinson said.
Almond production alone, Robinson said, uses
more than half the managed colonies.
The bee industry is facing difficulty meeting
pollination demand in almonds, according to the Agricultural Research
Service; yet, Robinson said, almond acreage is increasing.
"(Honeybees) very directly influence the food supply,"
said Ken Haller, president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association.
"On one hand, we as a society should not
be panic-stricken (about Colony Collapse Disorder), but we should
be very vigilant and concerned towards the well-being of honeybees,"
That's the way, he added, the association leadership is looking
at Colony Collapse Disorder, not only from the aspect of the financial
well-being of its members but to the members' ultimate consumers,
the fruit and vegetable eating public.
First reported in late fall, Colony Collapse
Disorder now is recorded across the country.
"We have no confirmed cases of Colony Collapse
Disorder entering Illinois," said Steve Chard, apiary inspection
supervisor with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "We've
reached that conclusion through our regular inspections of our
While inspectors have investigated reports in
Illinois of what might have been the disorder, said Chard, what
has been found are the more typical kinds of problems and diseases
However, a National Honey Bee Loss Survey, reported
by Bee Alert Technology Inc., includes Illinois as one of 35 states
with Colony Collapse Disorder loss as of June 1. Responses to
the survey, according to Jerry Bromenshenk, president and chief
operating officer of Bee Alert, are voluntary and can remain anonymous.
And, said Bromenshenk, that anonymity may account
for the reporting difference, since some beekeepers may choose
not to report losses to the state for business reasons. The June
statistics, he continued, are based upon more than 600 responses,
and include some physical inspections of colonies.
A similar kind of honeybee die-off has happened
at least eight times in the past, said Phil Nixon, University
of Illinois Extension entomologist.
One event happened in the 1960s to beekeepers
in Louisiana and Texas, said Bromenshenk, and another hit a larger
area in 1975.
"Each decade seems to have a 'disappearing'
disappearing disease," he added.
"The challenge is, 'What is it?' "
Several factors have been suspected, Robinson
said, and the cause could be a combination of them.
Those suspected causes, according to the Agricultural
Research Service, range from pesticides to viruses to bacteria
and fungi and even stress associated with the movement of bees
for long distances for pollination. That doesn't include the speculation
about cell phone towers - not on the research agenda, Robinson
said - nor even a sort of "Bee Rapture."
The answer is being sought by the Colony Collapse
Disorder Working Group, which includes Penn State University,
the Agricultural Research Service Beltsville (Md.) Bee Laboratory
and the University of Illinois. Robinson, who spearheaded efforts
to sequence the honeybee genome; and May Berenbaum, professor
and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of
Illinois, are among the researchers.
Having the honeybee genome sequenced means there
may be new tools available to solve this problem, Robinson said.
In particular, a gene chip has been designed to monitor the activities
of all genes in the genome.
"With that chip, we can look for abnormal
patterns of gene activity," Robinson said.
The diagnostic tools available with Robinson's
work and the virus testing also available are among the biggest
differences between this current disappearing event and any in
the past, added Bromenshenk.
Arlene Mannlein can be reached at email@example.com
or at 421-6976.
This article was originally published in
the Herald & Review [Decatur, IL] at