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.
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.
We're "not really at a crisis situation," says Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA-ARS's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. "We just don't have much in the way of a buffer."
A paper recently published in the journal Virology hints at a possible fix. One of the scientists who originally identified IAPV, Ilan Sela of Hebrew University in Jerusalem details a honeybee strain that's resistant to the virus. The bee has retained bits of IAPV genetic material in its own genome – a naturally occurring phenomenon – and gained some immunity, he says.
"The whole problem could be addressed by using these transgenic bees," says Dr. Lipkin.
Meanwhile, honeybees' predicament has brought long-sought attention to the usefulness – and plight – of natural pollinators. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report on the status of pollinators in North America cites "direct evidence for decline in some pollinator species." And yet, in a forthcoming study in Ecology Letters, Rachael Winfree, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that, when present, wild pollinators can do much of the pollinating.
In the New Jersey watermelon farms she studied, they did 90 percent. As compared with the vast monocultural fields of California's Central Valley or the Great Plains, the eastern agricultural landscape is dominated by many small farms interspersed with patches of natural habitat.
"Native bees are doing close to complete pollination," she says. "It would be good to have that kind of backup plan" in other places.
And that means different land-use practices. Indeed, recognizing wild pollinators' importance, some states already offer incentives to restore pollinator habitat.
For three years, the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in Montana has offered cost-sharing incentives for farmers and ranchers to grow pollinator-friendly plants. More recently, NRCS in New Jersey began offering $750 per acre to landowners who restore "wildflower meadows for pollinators."
Conservationists hope for $3 billion to $5 billion more from the new Farm Bill to boost such cost-sharing measures, says Tom Van Arsdall, the public affairs representative for the Pollinator Partnership in Washington, D.C. Although the authorized funds may not make it through appropriations, Van Arsdall already counts one victory. The Farm Bill now contains the word "pollinator," he says. It didn't, before.
"You could call it a watershed moment," he says.
To learn more about honeybees and pollinators in general:
• The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation offers a wealth of fact sheets and information on natural pollinators: www.xerces.org/Pollinator_Insect_Conservation/xerces_publications.htm
• Of particular note is Xerces' Pollinator Conservation Handbook, downloadable at: www.xerces.org/Pollinator_Insect_Conservation/Farming_for_Bees_2nd_edition.pdf
• Bee Culture magazine has bountiful information relating to honeybees.
• Tips on natural pollinators from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service: www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/pollinators.html