Middle East Virus Likely Cause of Honeybee Collapse

Honey bees from the U.K. i i

hide captionBeekeepers lost one-quarter of their colonies from "Colony Collapse Disorder" — about five times the normal winter losses. The problem seems to have spread to 27 states, with similar collapses reported in Brazil, Canada and the U.K.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Honey bees from the U.K.

Beekeepers lost one-quarter of their colonies from "Colony Collapse Disorder" — about five times the normal winter losses. The problem seems to have spread to 27 states, with similar collapses reported in Brazil, Canada and the U.K.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The Frenzy Over Missing Bees

The economic effect of the missing bees has not only stirred up worry in beekeepers and farmers, but has also caused concern in Congress. An NPR review of a year in bees:

For more than a year now, a mysterious plague has been ravaging honeybee populations all over the United States.

Beekeepers who have lost hives by the thousands call it "Colony Collapse Disorder." Now a group of scientists say they may have figured out what's causing it.

Honeybees trucked back and forth across the country pollinate roughly $15 billion worth of crops. And when the current pollination season started late last winter, beekeepers like Dave Hackenberg of Lewisberg, Pa., were ready for a banner year.

Then the mysterious bee plague hit and nearly drove Hackenberg out of business. He examined hives containing bees that managed to survive.

"What we lost was probably about 2,000 hives out of 3,000, and that cuts into your income pretty hard when you are going to rent these things," Hackenberg says. "And it's been a real long, hard year, to put it bluntly."

A Mysterious Disappearance

Hackenberg says he's never seen anything like what's now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. When it hits a hive, adult worker bees fly off suddenly, never to return.

Bee researcher Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says queens and undeveloped bees called "brood" are left behind to die.

"So something is killing or those bees are leaving or abandoning the hive in a very short time window, and that particular symptom is what we are identifying as CCD," Pettis says.

The first cases of Colony Collapse Disorder turned up in southern California in 2004. When tests for well-known bee diseases came up negative, Pettis and his colleagues asked experts on infectious diseases in humans for help.

One of these experts, Ian Lipkin from Columbia University, began by collecting bees from diseased and non-diseased hives, grinding them up and collecting their DNA.

"And this gives us not only bee material, but also everything that might be associated with bees, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites of different types," Lipkin says.

A Middle Eastern Connection

Lipkin set aside the bits and pieces of DNA from the bees and started sorting through what was left, searching for material found only in beehives infected by CCD. What they found, eventually, was a bee-killing virus first identified in Israel.

These findings have now been published online by the journal Science.

But both Pettis and Lipkin are quick to note that they have yet to prove conclusively that the Middle Eastern virus they found is the sole cause of CCD.

"Right now, we are claiming it is a marker in Colony Collapse Disorder," Pettis explains. "We have shown that it is present when colonies are collapsing, but we haven't shown cause and effect."

The American Effect

One unanswered question is why this virus is having such dramatic effects here and not elsewhere. Pettis has a hunch that bees in this country are already dealing with a host of other problems, ranging from killer fungi to parasitic mites.

He thinks beekeepers should take special care to make sure their hives are free of those old problems. Beekeepers can also eradicate infected hives, since that kills the virus.

Hackenberg says he is already doing all of those things but he isn't sure it will be enough.

"And unfortunately, there are beekeepers already starting to see problems, colonies dwindling or disappearing, and it didn't happen this early last year," Hackenberg says.

Hackenberg says some of his beekeeper friends lost 90 percent of the colonies to CCD in the pollination season that's just ending. If they lose more colonies next year, some of the farmers that rent these bees may not be able get them.

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