Disease Hits Bees, and Vital Crops Suffer

Commercially important bees in the U.S. are being ravaged by an unfamiliar new disease. It's raising fears that certain crops will go unpollinated this year. Beekeepers in 22 states have lost up to 80 colonies to the fast-spreading malady that experts are calling "colony collapse syndrome."

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A mysterious illness is wiping out commercial honeybees across the country, and that's raising fears that crops, including apples, almonds and blueberries, might not get pollinated this year. Scientists are working hard to find the cause of what they've been calling colony collapse disorder.

NPR's John Nielsen reports.

JOHN NIELSEN: Dave Hackenberg, a beekeeper since 1962, can usually tell what killed his bees just by looking at them. If they're lying on the ground in front of a hive, it's probably pesticides, he says. If the bees are deformed and wingless, it's probably vampire mites.

But last fall, Hackenberg saw something he had never seen before. Thousands of his bee colonies simply disappeared. He was in Florida at the time, pulling the lids off some of his commercial hives. To his horror, they were all empty.

Mr. HACKENBERG: After you open 25 or 30 hives and there's nothing in any of them, you start going through there, panicking, pulling beehives apart, lift them up, and look at to see what, you know, just, well, you're speechless.

NIELSEN: Hackenberg has since lost more than 2,000 of his 3,000 bee colonies. And he's not alone. Beekeepers in more than 20 states have now had close encounters with Colony Collapse Disorder. In Texas, some beekeepers have lost 90 percent of their commercial colonies. Hackenberg says the timing there could not have been worse.

Mr. HACKENBERG: They're basically out of business because of the fact that the main part of their income for the year is renting bees in California for almonds. And they're getting the bees ready to go to almonds, had the bees ready to go to almonds. By the time they went out there and load them on the trucks, they had disappeared within a matter of two, two and a half weeks. They just went from good beehives, down to nothing.

NIELSEN: That's a problem, because those commercial bees now pollinate a third of the nation's fruits and vegetables. At the moment, scientists have no idea what's causing these colonies to collapse. But honeybee expert Maryann Frazier of Penn State University says they are looking for clues. One thing they've been doing is dissecting the few bees that have been found inside the abandoned colonies.

Dr. MARYANN FRAZIER (Pennsylvania State University): We saw what looked like fungus in some of the trichion. We saw scarring of tissue, like in the digestive tract, some cysts that didn't look right.

NIELSEN: Frazier says there are three main theories about what's making these bees sick. One holds that the real killer is a new virus that the bees are not immune to. Another says parasites maybe carrying powerful new germs into the hives. Frazier says the third hypothesis is that the bees are being slowly poisoned by widely used pesticides. In other words:

Dr. FRAZIER: Can the bees be bringing something back to the colonies that over time builds up, and then causes all kinds of things? It can be not, maybe, fatal to them immediately, but can have some kind of chronic ill effects.

NIELSEN: Frazier says it could be years before the true cause of this die off is discovered. In the meantime, beekeepers will be moving the colonies they've got left across the country, potentially spreading whatever it is that's killing all those bees.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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