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Know the West

The buzz on bees


Since 2005, the nation's honeybees have been on a fast track to oblivion. Thousands of once-thriving, humming hives of pollinators have become empty husks, their inhabitants vanished.

Scientists have been racing to pin down the culprits behind what's known as Colony Collapse Disorder. So far, they've implicated a parasitic mite, an immune deficiency disorder, and pesticide buildup in honeycombs.

And now, it appears that the nomadic lives of modern beekeepers are a big part of the problem as well (Writer Hannah Nordhaus described their predicament eloquently in our 2005 story "The Silence of the Bees").

Every February, beekeepers load their hives onto semi-trucks and take them to California to pollinate crops like almonds. From there they may go to pollinate the Washington apple orchards in March, to North Dakota to forage in May, and then to Florida or California to wait out the winter. When they're on the road, the bees eat corn syrup. It's a stressful life, the insect equivalent of the long-distance trucker who sits in his cab for days on end, surviving on Pop Chips and Coke.

So this last year, beekeeper Eric Olsen of Yakima, Wash. decided to try something different. The Salem News reports:

Exasperated by his steep yearly losses, Olson did some research and asked around. This time, he didn’t truck his 14,000 hives from Washington to California and overwinter them in holding fields until the February almond bloom. Instead, he rented warehouse space in Yakima to store them. He equipped each room with air circulation and ventilation systems and set the thermostat at 40 degrees.

"Afterward, I just plain babysat, checking on them every day,” he said. As days stretched into weeks, "instead of dead bees, sick bees or none at all, they looked strong.”

Did Olson’s climate-controlled warehouse protect his bees from CCD? "Absolutely, I’m convinced of it,” he said. "I’ve compared notes with other commercial beekeepers who’ve indoored their bees with good results.” One of them is Tom Hamilton, of Hamilton Honey Co. in Idaho and Montana, whose indoor-stored bees don’t get hit by CCD, he said. "I’ve long suspected an environmental component,” Hamilton said. "By overwintering them indoors, the bees encounter fewer stressors, especially pesticides. Even if they’re not killing them outright, they leave the bees vulnerable,” he said.

Entomologist Steve Sheppard,  head of WSU’s Honey Bee Colony Health Diagnostic Laboratory, and his team will further study overwintering honey bees in controlled atmosphere conditions.

Meanwhile, researchers continue to unravel the many complex strands responsible for the collapse of honeybee colonies. In Maryland, scientists have found that bees exposed to a common pesticide called imdacloprid and then fed a fungal parasite, Nosema ceranae, were likely to have much higher loads of parasite spores in their bodies, causing them to die prematurely.

Swedish scientists have discovered that a drug used to fight the parasitic varroa mite in bees also makes the bees more susceptible to the deformed-wing virus.

And if all that weren't bad enough, now San Francisco State University scientists say a fly parasitizes honeybees and makes them act like zombies, abandon their hives and die. Apart from the San Francisco study, though, there doesn't seem to be empirical evidence supporting the fly as a major threat – other bee specialists say they've been aware of the fly for a long time and don't think it poses a danger to hives.

But there's no doubt that honeybees as a whole are still in deep trouble – and humans too, since bees pollinate 80 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables. A new documentary, The Vanishing of the Bees, examines the honeybee crisis and the effect it could have on the food supply. Watch it, and this spring, think about doing what you can to help honeybees that may forage in your neck of the woods. Avoid spraying pesticides, plant some bee-favored flowers to encourage native bee species, and support local apiarists by buying local honey. And even if it comes in a cute squeezy bear bottle, just say no to cheap, imported-from-China honey -- it's full of lead, sugar water and corn syrup.

Jodi Peterson is High Country News' managing editor.

Bee image courtesy Flickr user John.