A year and a half ago, news of a mysterious phenomenon captured the country’s attention – something known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that was affecting up to 30 percent of America’s commercial honeybee producers, whose mobile apiaries pollinate one-third of the country’s food supply.
For months, the international media carried reports on CCD (essentially a disappearing act by America’s worker honeybees), projecting repercussions that would drive produce and dairy prices through the roof and eventually cause large-scale food shortages in the U.S.
Then, as inexplicably as the syndrome’s arrival around 2004-2005, the media blitz died down. This winter, while commercial beekeepers prepare to send their hives cross-country for spring pollination, the CCD problem again looms large, if not larger, as some apiculturists see hints of a recurring nightmare. Others report having already lost huge chunks of their colonies.
“I think people thought we had it worked out, but we don’t,” says Pennsylvania State University‘s Diana Cox-Foster, adding that a lack of federal funding has stymied critical research. She and others say that, indeed, if CCD isn’t resolved soon, American agriculture will feel a major sting, and so will consumers.
The good news is that over the past year, and particularly in the past couple of months, scientists have made important inroads. According to entomologist Cox-Foster, the newest findings from her and collaborators at Columbia University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Research Laboratory show a solid link between U.S. versions of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) DNA and hive decimation, strongly tying the virus to imported Australian honeybee packages. The team has long suspected a connection between IAPV and CCD.
Last month, they and others around the country shared data at the National Beekeeping Conference in Sacramento, the first ever gathering of the country’s two major bee associations. CCD researchers also discussed ongoing attempts to characterize and isolate different viruses that appear to play a role in CCD, while others continue to explore the impact of environmental degradation, chemical interlopers, as well as disease carried by Varroa mites and small-hive beetles.
Though far from having an answer, producers and scientists emerged from the meeting more convinced than ever that if Congress doesn’t quickly fund CCD research and a national honeybee-health survey – provisions that are in both versions of a Farm Bill currently on the table – the beekeepers, too, may become a dying breed.
Minnesota beekeeper David Ellingson, whose family farm celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, says that although his colonies are looking good so far this winter (last year he lost 65 percent), he’s desperate for action.
“You know, we need answers to this yesterday – and we need the funding now. Next year is too late,” the 54-year-old says. “There have been other farm bills in the past (with authorization for bee research funding), but it didn’t happen. Things like that make you wonder. With all the technology we have now in agriculture and science.… I just know I can’t survive another year like I had last year.”
Since the colony collapses were first reported in 2004, apiculturists have been lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies for funds (approximately $75 million in the current proposed legislation). Some are optimistic that this time help is on the way, while others like Scott Black Hoffman, of the Xerces Society in Oregon (which promotes biodiversity), suspect that this being an election year – “and with so many other things on people’s minds” – bee health will once again get tabled.