Honeybees in Crisis

July 26, 2013 09:49 PM
Honeybees in Crisis

Disease and drought damage hive populations

This year a honeybee crisis is playing out in California almond fields, where producers can’t get enough hives to pollinate their crops. A high rate of overwinter losses from the 2012 drought and colony collapse disorder (CCD) reduced hives available for deployment.

Almonds, the leading crop dependent on honeybee pollination, are on the bleeding edge of the crisis. "[Farmers] are in a panic," says David Westervelt, assistant chief of the Florida Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection.

The hive populations are declin­ing, even as demand for their services increases. The result: rental prices hovering at $200 per colony, compared to $150 in 2010 and $58 in 2004.

CCD, first identified in 2006, often gets the most credit for the crisis. But Westervelt and David Epstein, an entomologist with USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy, agree that a complex variety of factors contribute to loss of hives each year. About 10% to 15% of colonies are lost each winter, regardless of CCD, Epstein says.

Dust from neonicotinoid pesticides used by corn producers is one of the potential stressors. The Corn Dust Research Consortium, a group of representatives from pesticide, seed and equipment companies; corn growers; beekeepers; conservation groups; and U.S. and Canadian governments, is evaluating the impact of the dust.

Meanwhile, various sectors of the agriculture industry are at stake. Nick Calderone of Cornell University estimates commercial bee pollinators directly contributed $11.7 billion to the agriculture economy in 2012 and another $5.4 billion indirectly. "One-third of the food we eat is directly linked to honeybees," Epstein notes.

Research since the outbreak of CCD has linked more than 20 new viruses and several bacteria to the disease. "There’s been more research into diseases affecting honeybees in the last six years than the last 600 years," Westervelt says.

Epstein adds, "With the description of the honeybee genome, we’re finally coming up with answers."

You can e-mail Boyce Thompson at bthompson@farmjournal.com.


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