Experts fear their disappearance will take a toll on the nation's food chain
Sunday, April 15, 2007
BY AMY ELLIS NUTT
Jean-Claude Tassot felt the sunshine spilling over his shoulders. It was unseasonably warm for January -- a good day, he decided, to check his honeybees. So Tassot jumped in his truck and rumbled over the back roads of Morris County to the first of the eight farms where he stores his boxes of hives.
"When you first take the cover off, usually you can see the bees," said Tassot. "But when I looked, there was nothing. I kept looking (but) the hives were all dead."
Tassot drove to the next farm, then the next and the next. At every stop it was the same thing.
Out of 171 hives, 140 were wiped out. Even the few dozen that remained were weak at best.
"It was a catastrophe," he said.
In New Jersey, as in at least 26 other states around the country, commercial beekeepers and hobbyists are reporting catastrophic losses of honeybees this year. As many as 700,000 of the nation's 2.4 million bee colonies have been affected, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.
"I've talked to several beekeepers up and down the state, and they're reporting from 30 to 99 percent bee losses," said Bob Hughes, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association.
Built around the state insect of New Jersey, the honeybee industry is a $2.5 million business and provides pollination for 80 percent of the state's crops worth some $200 million, according to the state department of agriculture. Even so, there is currently no state apiarist, or beekeeper, (the previous one retired and no replacement has been named) and no state university or government bee researcher.
"In the Garden State no one is doing research on the honeybee?" said Janet Katz, who owns Two Cats Apiaries in Chester. "It's mind-boggling. They research everything else in agriculture, but not bees. We're desperate."
Beatrice Tassot is even more blunt: "People are panicking."
While honey and honey products account for only a small fraction of the nation's agriculture, 140 billion commercially raised honeybees are responsible for pollinating about $20 billion worth of crops, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Throughout the spring and summer months, waves of migratory beekeepers follow the blossoming trees and orchards up and down the United States. Driving 18-wheelers, they truck crates of millions of bees to farms in rural and suburban hamlets -- to fields of sweet clover in Colorado; to the sun-drenched citrus groves in Florida; the cucumber and melon patches in Virginia; the apple orchards in Maine, New York and Wisconsin; the cotton fields in West Texas; the almond trees in California; and the cranberry bogs in New Jersey.
In the thick heat, the bees are released to fertilize the crops. Flower by flower, they forage for food, and in the process coat themselves with bits of pollen that drop randomly, like fairy dust, on every blossom they touch.
It has been estimated that a third of all food (nuts, fiber, fruit and vegetables) eaten by Americans is dependent on the honeybee.
"This whole country depends on the commercial beekeeper for its food," said Landi Simone, a master beekeeper with 40 hives in the Montville area.
What has astonished and alarmed apiarists about this year's dead hives is that they are, by and large, empty hives.
"In January, with that warm day, when I went into the hives, there wasn't a pile of dead bees in the hive. And there weren't any dead bees in front of the hive," said Katz. "I had never seen anything like this before."
All around the country, both large and small beekeeping operations are registering staggering losses. An apiarist at Mississippi State University reported that one beekeeper he knew lost nearly 1,000 of his 1,200 colonies. A beekeeper in Missouri reported the loss of 596 of his 700 colonies. And in Ohio, a longtime beekeeping operation reported 700 of its 800 colonies had been decimated.
At present there is no known cause for what scientists are now calling, for lack of a better term, "Colony Collapse Disorder." The main symptom of CCD, which was first noticed by beekeepers in the Eastern states late last year, is the complete absence of adult bees in formerly healthy hives, with few or no dead bees in the vicinity despite the presence of food.
Honeybees have been around for at least 150 million years. But in the past half-century, nearly all the wild bees have disappeared, the result of a combination of disease and loss of habitat. There are few places anymore where one can live next to a "bee-loud glade," as the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote.
The rapid decline of feral honeybees has meant an increased reliance on commercial beekeepers to service the agricultural industry. Where there are no honeybees, there are no apple orchards or pumpkin patches, no squash, no broccoli, no cucumbers, melons, blueberries or cherries.
In the late 1980s, two pests, the varroa and tracheal mites, began decimating honeybee colonies all over the United States. With the falloff in honeybees, and without the government subsidies farmers get, beekeepers began abandoning the business. In the past 20 years nearly half of New Jersey's apiarists have closed up shop.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture heard testimony from commercial apiarists, as well as scientists, regarding the new threat to the American beekeeping industry. One of the experts, Penn State University entomologist Diana Cox-Foster, said that a recently convened research group is looking into three hypotheses for the unprecedented die-off:
New or re-emerging pathogens
Environmental pesticides suppressing the immune system of bees
A combination of stresses working together to weaken bee colonies and cause final collapse.
Tassot and his wife believe they know why their bees have disappeared.
"We have suspicions about pesticides," he said. "We noticed most of the dead hives are close to cornfields. ... And when we asked other beekeepers what was the principle crop near their hives, they said corn, corn, corn."
Simone, of Morris Township, agrees. "When I spoke with other beekeepers they say all their hives with heavy losses are near cornfields."
Many farmers in the United States and around the world rely on genetically engineered corn to survive the assault of crop-killing insects. The seeds are coated with a systemic pesticide that is essentially built into the corn as it grows.
One of the chief chemicals used is a neurotoxin called imidacloprid, which is manufactured by the German company Bayer CropScience. Imidacloprid works by blocking a pathway in insect brains that results in an accumulation of a neurotransmitter which, in insects, leads to paralysis and death.
At sublethal doses, however, imidacloprid is toxic to honeybees. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, German scientist Eric Zeisstoff wrote that his research "indicated that bees affected by imidacloprid suffer problems with orientation. Bees with a particular level of imidacloprid contamination at 500 meters from the colony did not return to the hive at all."
In the mid-1990s, imidacloprid was implicated in a catastrophic honeybee die-off in France where honey production was cut in half between 1995 and 2002. In 2003 alone, more than 150 million honeybees were lost in France, and since then some uses of imidacloprid have been banned.
The reason for the die-off may not be so simple, however. Scientists also have discovered that adult bees in hives suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder carried fungal infections that may indicate the immune system of the bees may be compromised, contributing to the collapse.
"It's a scary thing to contemplate," said Simone, "because the potential for harm is really huge. ... If we don't find some real answers pretty soon, we'll see prices of fruit go way up."
Part of the problem, says Katz, is that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps statistics on honey production, it does not track trends in pollination.
"The government has no ideas how many hives are put into crops, where they come from, or where they travel to," said Katz. "To me that is the major value of the honeybee in the U.S. ... It will be very difficult to quantify the loss. It will start to snowball.
"We'll see skyrocketing prices. It's going to be very problematic, and we're already behind the curve on the state and federal level."
Amy Ellis Nutt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1794.