COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER AFFLICTING HONEYBEES

Published online: Feb 05, 2007
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A dramatic die-off of honeybees has American beekeepers fighting for survival and crop growers wondering if there will be bees to pollinate their crops this spring and summer.

Researchers are scrambling to find answers to what's causing an affliction recently named Colony Collapse Disorder, which has rampages through commercial beekeeping operations across the United States.

There are some indications the disorder has also been experienced in overseas areas including Europe but scientific confirmation is not yet available.

American beekeepers report losses of 30 to 90 percent of their bees. One with 13,000 hives has lost 80 percent and another with 1,200 colonies expects only nine to survive the current winter.

University of Montana research professor Jerry Bromenshenk says he now has confirmation of the disorder in 21 states and he expects that number to grow. It was found last year in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa and quickly spread east and west. "It appears communicable," Bromenshenk says.

In cases where the colony appears to be actively collapsing, researchers find an insufficient workforce to maintain the brood and that workforce appears to be made up of young adult bees. The queen is present but the cluster is reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement.

Many beekeepers are openly wondering if the industry can survive. There are serious concerns that losses are so great there will not be enough bees to rebuild colony numbers to service pollination needs and to maintain economic viability in beekeeping operations.

The evidence thus far is the disorder occurs throughout the year and when it hits otherwise strong colonies lose their entire workforce in a matter of weeks. The symptoms in collapsed colonies include the complete absence of adult bees in colonies, with no or little build up of dead bees inside or in front of the colonies.

The disorder has previously had a number of names including fall dwindle disease, autumn collapse, May disease, spring dwindle and disappearing disease.

"During the lat three months of 2006, we began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honey bee colonies dying in the eastern United States," Maryann Frazier, apiculture extension associate in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences said. "Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses.

"This has become a highly significant yet poorly understood problem that threatens the pollination industry and the production of commercial honey in the United States," she said. "Because the number of managed honey bee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago, states such as Pennsylvania can ill afford these heavy losses."

A group of university researchers, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension educators and industry representatives is working to identify the cause or causes of the disorder and to develop management strategies and recommendations for beekeepers.

Participating organizations include Penn State, the USDA, the Pennsylvania and Florida Departments of Agriculture and Bee Alert Technology Inc., a technology transfer company affiliated with the University of Montana.

"Preliminary work has identified serveral likely factors that could be causing or contributing to CCD," said Dennis VanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "Among them are mites and associated diseases, some unknown pathogenic disease and pesticide contamination or poisoning."

Initial studies of dying colonies revealed a large number of disease organisms present, with no one disease being identified as the culprit. VanEngelsdorp said ongoing case studies and surveys of beekeepers experiencing the disorder have found a few common management factors but no common environmental agents or chemicals.

Frazier said to cope with a potential shortage of pollination services, growers should plan well ahead. "Regardless, there is little doubt that honeybees are going to be in short supply this spring and possibly into the summer," she said.

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