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FYI: What's Happening To The Bees?

As if by one sudden swoop, thousands of bees disappeared from the Pennsylvania farm of Dave Hackenberg. But he was just the first of hundreds of bee farmers — also known as apiarists — to report a sudden die-off or depopulation of their hives to researchers.

He told National Geographic: "In almost 50 years as a beekeeper, I've never seen anything like it."

That was October, when his hive was decimated. By February, the bee problem had grown widespread enough to garner much media attention and be called a crisis by some news outlets. According to the Apiary Inspectors of America, a hive-tracking group, more than a quarter of the country's bee colonies have been lost — more than half-a million bee colonies that have simply vanished. What is actually happening — and what repercussions could it have on your dinner table?

What is happening to the bees?

In short, a quarter of the country's 2.4 million bee colonies have been decimated or lost. There are many theories about what's caused the loss, but there is no definitive answer.

One thing has almost been agreed upon: Scientists are calling this Colony Collapse Disorder. Well, except for those who call it Fall Dwindle Disease (the phenomenon's former name).

A Congressional Research Service report for members of Congress listed the following possible causes of CCD, as reported by scientists.

  • Parasites, mites, and disease loads in the bees and brood
  • Known/unknown pathogens
  • Poor nutrition among adult bees
  • Level of stress in adult bees (e.g., transportation and confinement of
    bees, or other environmental or biological stressors)
  • Chemical residue/contamination in the wax, food stores and/or bees
  • Lack of genetic diversity and lineage of bees
  • A combination of several factors
  • What are some of the myths about CCD?
    The disappearance of so many bees so quickly has been blamed on everything from a rapture (the bees have been called to heaven, some say) to shifts in the Earth's magnetic field.

    Or maybe it is cell phones. One German study examining a certain type of cell phone and bees' honing systems got misinterpreted and joked about on the Internet and talk shows and soon was being cited as evidence that mobile phones were killing bees, The Associated Press reported.

    Could this affect how we eat?
    In some states, apiarists are already being called on to explain why their honey supplies are dwindling. One New Hampshire beekeeper told the Boston Globe: "I have to consistently explain to people about why there isn't enough honey."

    But moreover, scientists and farmers are concerned about the fruits, vegetables and nuts that grow after being pollinated by the country's hived and feral honeybees.

    According to a study funded by the National Honey Board, about 1/3 of Americans' diet is dependent on bees' pollination.

    While some crops, like wheat and corn, are wind-pollinated, many flowering crops, like almonds or apples, rely heavily on honeybees. On orchards and berry farms, bees are often trucked in for the express purpose of pollinating the crops.

    Why do we need bees?
    A spoonful of honey might be a sweet treat and is an ingredient in many foods, but the country's honey supply is not the main concern.

    Entomology professor May Berenbaum said in an interview for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that "what makes the situation particularly critical is the fact that the demand for pollination services — not honey, per se, but pollination services — is exploding."

    The dip in pollination could have an economic impact down the road: An estimated $14 billion in U.S. crops in the are dependent on bee pollination.

    For more information:
  • Check out the USDA's National Honey Report. (.pdf)
  • The National Honey board has more on CCD and how research about it is being funded.
  • Read testimony given before the House committee on Agriculture.
  • Congressional Research Service prepared this report for Congress about CCD.
  • Find honey near you.
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