U.S.D.A. researchers work to boost honey bee production

by Allison Sebolt
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WASHINGTON — The decline in the honey bee population has raised alarm in several segments of the food industry. In response, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have finalized an action plan to help boost the honey bee population after widespread colony collapse disorder (C.C.D.) — a disappearance of honey bee colonies that may be affecting bees in more than 22 states.

Colony collapse disorder differs from previous population losses because colony losses are occurring mostly because bees are failing to return to the hive, bee colony losses have been rapid, in large numbers and the reason for the losses remains unknown.

The pollination bees provide is critical to agriculture, with honey bees pollinating more than 130 crops in the United States and adding about $15 billion in crop value annually. The almond crop in California, for example, requires 1.3 million bee colonies to pollinate the crop, and there are 2.4 million bee colonies in the United States.

"There were enough honey bees to provide pollination for U.S. agriculture this year, but beekeepers could face serious problems next year and beyond," said Gale Buchanan, U.S.D.A. undersecretary for research, education and economics. "This action plan provides a coordinated framework to ensure that all of the research that needs to be done is covered in order to get to the bottom of the C.C.D. problem."

Other crops with at least 90% reliance on honey bees as pollinators include apples, onions, broccoli, carrots, cherries, cantaloupe and honeydew. By estimates in 2000, honey bees added $1.4 billion in value to apples, $959 million in value to almonds and $435 million to broccoli.

The U.S.D.A.’s action plan will have four parts: survey and data collection; analysis of samples to determine the prevalence of various pests and pathogens, exposure to pesticides or other factors; controlled experiments to analyze the causes of C.C.D.; and the development of new methods to improve general bee health.

Colony collapse disorder is threatening honey production as well as crops that depend on bees for pollination. The disorder was first identified this past winter when several beekeepers reported losses of 30% to 90% of their hives. While colony losses during the winter often occur, this drop was of a much greater level than usual. The main symptom of C.C.D. is finding no or few adult honey bees present with no dead honey bees in the hives. In fact, there is often still honey in the hives along with immature bees.

In the U.S.D.A.’s plan, four possible causes for C.C.D. were identified and include: New or reemerging pathogens, new bee pests or parasites, environmental and nutritional stress, or pesticides.

Mites have threatened colonies since the 1980s, but Nicholas Calderone, associate professor of entomology at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., said approximately 25% of the recent bee deaths should not be attributed to mites or any other known honey bee pest. A suspected cause of C.C.D. is immune-suppressing stress on bees caused by one of several factors such as poor nutrition, drought and migratory stress.

As a part of the new action plan, surveyors will work to determine the extent of C.C.D. in the United States and the status of honey bee colony production and health. The effort will include participation from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Different federal agencies, universities and private institutions are expected to continue analyzing samples with the goal of identifying and characterizing pathogens, pests and pesticides or environmental contaminants that may be associated with C.C.D.

Researchers will work to determine the factors or specific stressors that may be contributing to the causes of C.C.D. and work to establish preventive measures such as developing pest management practices and strategies to maintain bees with resistance to parasites and pathogens.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 24, 2007, starting on Page 32. Click here to search that archive.

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