Progress on 'collapsing' beehives
Some warned of crop disaster when honeybees started to disappear. Crops didn't fail, but farmers and beekeepers aren't out of danger yet.
Last fall, honeybee hives began showing up mysteriously vacant. Entire adult bee populations seemingly vanished without a trace, often leaving the queen, juveniles, and honey behind.Skip to next paragraph
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By spring, what beekeepers had called "autumn collapse" or "fall dwindle disease" had a new name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD hit nearly one-quarter of commercial beekeeping operations in the United States. Affected operations lost between 50 and 90 percent of their hives. In an industry where 10 to 20 percent yearly losses are common, the die-offs were drastic. In March testimony before the House's Committee on Agriculture, Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, called CCD a "serious threat to American agriculture."
Ultimately, pollination went smoothly this year. Imported bees replenished domestic stocks, and good weather aided weak hives. Research on CCD has progressed, though its exact causes remain hidden. But the crisis did highlight what some say is agriculture's overreliance on honeybees.
Honeybees pollinate one-third of all US crops – apples, almonds, and blueberries among them – valued at some $14.6 billion. For years, ecologists had warned that total reliance on honeybees – and on any monoculture, be it cotton, potato, or bee – makes a crop vulnerable to failure. Potential alternate pollinators – some 4,000 kinds of native bees – were having their own problems, from habitat loss and pesticides to imported diseases.
Alarmed lawmakers introduced the Pollinator Protection Act into Congress, which was later rolled into the 2007 Farm Bill. In July, the House authorized $86.5 million over five years for research on CCD and honeybee health. In October, the Senate raised the amount to $100 million. Meanwhile, scientists from several institutions and disciplines brought their expertise to bear on CCD. And in September, they named a prime suspect: the so-called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV).
As for this year's crop, "I don't want to say it was business as usual, but it was pretty close," says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine in Medina, Ohio. "There were enough bees to pollinate everything that needed pollinating."
Warm, clear weather, especially in California, helped weak hives do more pollinating, he says. (Dry conditions also contributed to a record low honey harvest – 150 million pounds compared with the usual 200 million to 250 million, he says.) Beekeepers augmented hives with bees imported from Australia. Hive rental fees did rise, he says, but that was due more to speculating than to a honeybee shortage.
"Beehives are worth their weight in gold somewhere," says Mr. Flottum.
We're not in the clear, Flottum and others warn. The money that beekeepers spent replenishing hives likely put them deep into the red, and the hives are still weak. Neither bees nor beekeepers can absorb these losses on an ongoing basis.
"I'm anxious about what happens this year," says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "Migratory beekeepers are the last of their kind, the last nomadic farmers in America."
James Doan, a beekeeper out of Hamlin, N.Y., lost more than half his hives last winter. After getting his numbers back up to 2,000, he lost another quarter over the summer.
"If I can get enough money to get out of this business, I'll get out," he says. "I don't see a lot of future."
Honeybee health problems come at a time when, driven by a growing taste for specialty crops, demand for pollination services is growing. This year, the almond harvest increased by 19 percent over last year, topping 1,330 million pounds for a record crop, according to the Almond Board of California. Of the estimated 2.5 million hives in America, more than half will converge on California's almond orchards come spring.
Scientists have long warned that reliance on one species for pollination services – the honeybee – leaves pollination-dependent crops at greater risk of failure. "We've been saying that for a while. It's crazy to rely on a single species," says Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recently named MacArthur Fellow.
A decline in wild pollinators has only exacerbated the problem. Farmers can't count on native pollinators for backup. But certain land-management practices can "bring back some floral diversity" and entice natural pollinators back to the farmscape, says Dr. Kremen. Here are a few:
• Learn to tolerate weeds around field edges. They provide food and habitat for pollinators.
• Plant "insectary strips" – strips of flowers for insects. They should include plants that bloom in succession – spring, summer, and fall – so pollinators have forage at any given time of the year. In very large fields, grow not just strips, but islands of habitat.
• Grow hedgerows at field boundaries. They provide good habitat. They also block wind and halt erosion.
• Leave some land unplowed. Tilling kills native bee species that nest in the earth.