Across the U.S., Keepers Say Their Bees Are AWOL

Recently in more than 20 states, beekeepers are opening their hives to find the bees gone. While bee populations in the U.S. have been suffering in recent years from a variety of threats, this sudden disappearance of bees from hives across the country has caught many beekeepers off guard, with no clear explanations.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of the hour, an insect mystery. You might call it, if you watch television, a CSI Hymenoptera, if you will. Hymenoptera, that's the order to which honeybees belong to. And the honeybees are in trouble. And just like all good "CSI" dramas, this one starts with beekeepers in at least 24 states reporting that their bees are missing. You know, they go out to the hive, they lift the lid, and they find that the bees are all gone. No dead bodies in this mystery, no clues as to what happened. The hives look absolutely normal, homey places for bees to be. And while disappearing honey bees can certainly mean a lack of honey production, it's a lot more than that. It means a lack of pollinators. And according to a Cornell University study, honey bees pollinate more than 12 to 14 billion - $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the U.S. every year.

Joining me now to talk about the problem dubbed colony collapse disorder are my guests: May Berenbaum is professor of entomology, head of the entomology department, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Berenbaum.

Dr. MAY BERENBAUM (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Pleasure to be here. Thanks for your interest.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Daniel Weaver is a beekeeper and president of the American Beekeeping Federation. He joins us from Texas. Thanks for talking with us today, Mr. Weaver.

Mr. DANIEL WEAVER (President, American Beekeeper Foundation): Happy to be here.

FLATOW: Did I describe it correctly, Mr. Weaver? You go out to the hive and the bees are missing?

Mr. WEAVER: That's it in a nutshell. And that's what differentiates this malady from other bee losses. Beekeepers often find a few colonies have perished over the winter due to lack of food or recently - in recent times - parasitic mites and sometimes other pathogens.

But in this case beekeepers come back to the colonies that had been populous, strong and healthy only weeks earlier and find no adult bees left in the hive or only a handful, and often with two, three, four, five frames of brood there with no bees tending for them.

And that's completely different than the usual conditions in a colony as it withers away from other maladies.

FLATOW: So they - they leave and they just don't return. They're not dying in the colony - in the hive.

Mr. WEAVER: Right. Right. That's one of the mysteries, I suppose. In most of other circumstances there are usually signs of heavy mite infestation. Young emergent bees that are crippled, deformed, they fall to the bottom.

If the colony starves, adult bees are left on the bottom. If it's a pesticide kill, bees are normally found at the entrance of the hive or on the ground out in front of the hive.

And none of those seem to be common features of colonies that collapse from this syndrome.

FLATOW: Wow. Dr. Berenbaum, give us your take on this mystery.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, it's certainly a mystery. And part of the problem is without a body it's hard to rule out any specific cause. There is a...

FLATOW: There've got to be a lot of people giving you suggestions, right?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, actually I was going to say I had an op-ed piece in New York Times last week. The upside of a New York Times op-ed piece is millions of people read it. The down side is millions of people read it.

And I've been deluged with suggestions from people. And frankly, there's none that we can really rule out. I mean, there's some that would seem less plausible than others.

But who would have believed 30 years ago that underarm spray deodorant could destroy the ozone layer? So there are all kinds of possibilities.

In fact, there may be even combinations of factors that are unique to this particular point in time. So it may not be necessarily a new stress or a new problem but a combination of things that sort of reached the tipping point.

And honey bee social structure is so intricate and so complex that once it's disrupted it's difficult for the bees to recover.

FLATOW: Talking about the case of mysterious vanishing bees this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with May Berenbaum and Daniel Weaver.

Is there - so how do you go about, Dr. Berenbaum, researching what happens to them? Can you tag bees and follow them?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, there's a broad consortium of concerned beekeepers, scientists and other involved parties. And I think one of the very - there's already been quite an intensive effort to look for obvious candidates - for fungal bacterial or viral diseases in specimens.

But even sampling has proved to be really problematical because you can't sample and you can't investigate - you can't examine a body that's not there. So if there are bees that remain in these seriously depleted hives, you don't know if they remain because they are on their way to an inexorable exit or because they're resistant to this factor.

And even if they do remain - as Danny Weaver said - their social structure is so disrupted, they're - all their - virtually all their nest mates are gone. All the tasks of the colony are dumped on their little bee shoulders. And it's bound to be stressful.

So it's a real puzzle.

FLATOW: Wow. Danny Weaver, so what are beekeepers doing? Can they share bees if they're missing some and get some from people who still have their bees?

Mr. WEAVER: That's an option for some beekeepers. Beekeepers are really quite resourceful. And in this era where we've learned to cope with exotic parasitic mites that have killed hundreds of thousands of colonies over the years, well, beekeepers have become accustomed to either dividing their own hives, colony level reproduction - essentially inducing artificial swarming of healthy colonies that remain - or buying packaged bees which are like artificial swarms and queens from beekeepers like myself who produce those for sale for other beekeepers.

But you've got to recognize that when a beekeeper's means of economic livelihood is removed well then his resources available for restocking his enterprise are limited at best.

And particularly when you consider that beekeepers who traditionally have counted on making up their winter losses by dividing their remaining colonies are in a seriously handicapped position once the remaining colonies account for less than 50 percent of the normal number of hives in an operation.

At that point you just simply can't recover on your own.

FLATOW: Right. Well, that's one half of the equation. And the other half is - are all the farmers who depend on the bees to pollinate their crops. We've heard mention about the California almond crop depending, what, 80 percent, 70, 80 percent on the bees to pollinate them.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Do you want to go ahead, Danny? Well, I just wanted to say that, you know, people think - you know, the initial impression is how sad for the beekeepers. But in point of fact about a third of our agricultural enterprise rests on honey bees.

As technologically advanced and sophisticated as we are, we have not yet developed any satisfactory alternative for pollination - the process by which plants reproduce and produce fruit and seeds - nothing to replace or even come close to what bees can do.

So it's not just the beekeepers. It's the whole - well, one third of the agricultural enterprise in ways you wouldn't even expect. Bees, for example, are principal pollinators of alfalfa and clover which provides forage - hays and seeds for cattle - dairy cattle and beef cattle - which then enter the agricultural commodity stream through that route.

FLATOW: OK. Dr. Berenbaum, hang on because we have to take a break, because this is really - you can see how this filters down through the whole food chain and up the food chain.

So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break talking with May Berenbaum and Daniel Weaver.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the mysterious case of vanishing honey bees all over the country. In 20 - a couple dozen states bees are just disappearing from their nests - from their hives - and not coming back.

And May Berenbaum is head of the entomology department, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Daniel Weaver is a beekeeper and president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

And when I rudely interrupted Dr. Berenbaum she was telling us about how the whole agriculture of the U.S. basically depends on bees virtually.

Dr. BERENBAUM: So that's basically, yeah. There are many connections. And I mean there are many other pollinating species. But the advantage of the honey bee is - first of all, it's manageable. It can be transported, as Danny was explaining.

There are - we have a couple of thousand years of history working with this animal. There are large colonies of 30,000 workers or so. So they can work a large area of crop. And they're also phenomenally versatile compared to other pollinating species.

They can handle a tremendous diversity of different species. There are - there may be native bees that are better at certain crops. But it's - the honey bee's the Jack of all - or I guess the Jill of all trades, since the females are - the workers are the females - and can handle so many different tasks.

And they have this sophisticated language that allows them to recruit individuals to a particular abundant flower. This is not known in other species.

FLATOW: Hmm. Let's go to Paul in Shelby, Michigan. Hi, Paul.

PAUL (Caller): Hi. Had a question. Something that hasn't been mentioned is - is the queen missing from the hives, with my thought being could someone be taking or is the queen leaving and the bees follow her? Or could some other chemical be confusing the bees and causing them to abandon their hive?

FLATOW: Good question. Danny Weaver?

Mr. WEAVER: Well, I'll say that in some colonies where there's only a handful of bees remaining, one often finds the queen there among the few remaining survivors. And in a few cases queens have even been observed alone in these colonies where most of the other adults have perished.

So it's - it's certainly not the case that the queen is absconding from the hive and taking the other workers with her. That wouldn't appear to explain this phenomenon.

I do think, though, that your suggestion that perhaps there are environmental toxins that could be causing the bees to become confused or otherwise disrupting the enormously complex social structure of the hive is one theory that's been advanced and needs to be eliminated as a potential cause.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Mr. WEAVER: But there are other honey bee pathogens that could also have the same effect. Bee viruses have been detected at extremely high tiders(ph). In some of the affected samples it remains to be seen whether that correlation will hold up as more are analyzed.

And that suggests that perhaps the bees' immune system has been suppressed and/or that some other agents have fostered some epidemic exchange of these bee viruses among affected colonies.

FLATOW: May and Danny, you've pointed out how important these are to the security of the United States food supply. You would think that people would be upset, they'd be taking action at the Department of Agriculture and recognizing, you know, the problem that exists. Instead it seems to be flying under the radar screen, Danny.

Mr. WEAVER: Well, it is a bit. And that has us alarmed too, although I must say that I've just returned from a trip to Washington and there are a few key senators and representatives who have become aware of the problem and are alarmed and are attempting to do something.

And that doing something would include - among other things - providing more money for talented researchers like Dr. Berenbaum to continue their investigations using the latest available technology.

One of the advantages we have compared to some other species is that the honey bee genome has recently been sequenced. And consequently we can dissect the effect of whatever it is that's causing these losses on the honey bee at the genomic level, looking for gene expression differences or alenic(ph) frequency differences between the affected colonies and unaffected controls.

And by doing that one might be able to begin to get a handle on what's causing these - these disastrous losses.

FLATOW: Penny in Redding, California. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PENNY (Caller): Hi. I had a question. I'm learning about nanotechnology. And I know they have a lot of new insecticides. And I was wondering, I think they are altering - are they altering viruses and then spraying it on food to kill bacteria?

And you know, has that been tested to find out that it's safe before they use that kind of thing? Is that regulated? I don't know. I mean that might be a problem.

Dr. BERENBAUM: The Environmental Protection Agency has very stringent regulations for testing safety and toxicity before registering a pesticide of any sort, microbial or chemical or any pesticide. The problem is that traditionally these tests have been toxicity tests, lethality tests, and not tests for sub-lethal effects on behavior.

So it's entirely possible that there are chemicals in use or microbial insecticides in use that don't kill the bees outright in a typical toxicity test where you have a micro-applicator that puts a drop of the toxin on the - and you compare a number of dosages to estimate just how toxic the material is.

But you know, for a honeybee, again, for so many different tasks to accomplish over the course of its life, that some - an effect on the behavior, on general nervous system function, could prove to be lethal in a way that you wouldn't ever detect in a typical screening.

FLATOW: Let's go to Stephanie in Iron City, Georgia. Hi, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hey.

FLATOW: Hi there.

STEPHANIE: I have a question. We live here in Southwest Georgia, and my husband runs a saw mill, and we got a cypress log in last year that had a beehive in it, and we just kind of propped it up against an oak tree, and they lived there all year, and they disappeared around November or December, and we wondered if maybe, you know, a yellow jacket nest or something had attacked it, and lo and behold, about four weeks ago, three weeks ago, there's just a slew of bees flying in and out of the nest again, and they've appeared back.

I don't know if it's the same nest, of course, but I was curious if bees just randomly move their nests like fire ants do. I know fire ants move their nests randomly, or at random times.

FLATOW: Danny?

Mr. WEAVER: Yeah. I've got a couple of comments about that. So first of all, I think it could be the case, and I have no idea whether the nest cavity was exposed so that you could actually see the place where the bees built their comb and whether or not there were any bees left there or not. But one possibility is that the colony simply reduced its population over winter and reduced its activity when there weren't any flowers in bloom and that the colony persisted and simply went through the normal population decline in winter and is now rebounding and entering is exponential growth phases. The bees begin to bring back pollen and rear brood and young adults hatch. So that's one possibility.

Another is, is that as Africanized bees move into the U.S., well, Africanized bees are much more prone to swarm early and often in the season, and it could be the case that you've picked up a feral swarm, which in some parts of the U.S., the southern tier of states especially, it's more - now more common than it once was to pick up a swarm that is partially Africanized.

FLATOW: Interesting question. Thanks for calling.

STEPHANIE: Bye.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Are you disappointed that there is not - or is there emergency research money to find out what's going on here, Danny?

Mr. WEAVER: Not yet. We're hopeful we're going to get some. Chairman Cardoza, the House Agriculture Committee - actually, he's chair of the subcommittee that's in charge of honeybees - is going to hold a hearing on the 29th of March, and he hopes in that hearing to develop a record that will support our urgent request for more research funding.

We were really hopeful that we didn't have to go through that step because that will of course slow things down, and the researchers are desperate to continue their investigations, but they need money to do it.

Nonetheless, it's certainly better than nothing, and we're hopeful that one of the outcomes of that hearing process will be that senators and congressmen and -women are persuaded that this is something that deserves additional attention, especially additional research, because as Dr. Berenbaum so eloquently pointed out, honeybees are really a linchpin of agriculture, and not only that, they're important contributors to pollinating wild plants in the environment too.

FLATOW: May, do we have a good handle on honeybee populations, where they are, how they change? Like you know, we keep of cattle because, you know, they're important.

Dr. BERENBAUM: The National Academy of Sciences charged a committee about two years ago - a year and a half ago - to examine the status of pollinators in North America, not just honeybees but pollinators. There have been, for 20 years, concerns rising over the apparent reductions in numbers of bees, of moths, butterflies, flies, bats, birds and other animals that are utterly essential for flowers to reproduce.

There are reports all around the world of declining numbers, so the committee studied this issue and examined the available data, and the one glaringly obvious conclusion that we came to is that we do not keep track of our animals very well. We do not keep track of pollinators. We don't know very much about pollinators, and what's truly astonishing is that here we have an essentially domesticated animal of enormous agricultural importance, and we can't figure out how to count them.

I mean, there is a National Agricultural Statistic Service that traditionally tallies the number of honeybee hives that are maintained for honey production, but this is a vestige - this was started in 1947 - a vestige of an era before honeybees' importance as pollinators was so prominent.

So there's no real way that we're keeping track of how many bees we have that are contributing pollination services. Another problem is when you count your bees, because as Danny said, over the course of a season, bees can regulate their own populations, and beekeepers can as well, and they can have manifold variation in the numbers of individual workers.

So you can count the number of hives, but we have no way to assess the quality, the strength or the viability of those bees. So in a way we don't know how bad things are because we don't know how good they were before.

FLATOW: You don't have baseline data.

Dr. BERENBAUM: No baseline data. Well, we have a baseline, but it's very difficult to interpret.

FLATOW: Talking about the honeybee problem this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Is there a plan of attack, May, that we need to take on now?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, there is a - it's been an amazing response among the many-faceted bee-research community, that everyone is contributing his or her expertise, and there's already an effort - there was a summit a couple of weeks ago in Stuart, Florida. There are collaborative efforts to utilize these new genomic tools.

You know, this is a terrible thing to be happening, but odd as it might sound, it couldn't have happened at a better time, because if it had been a year ago, we wouldn't have had at our disposal some really remarkable new tools to deal with to address these concerns.

The honeybee genome is just a tremendous advance. As Danny was saying, we now have a grasp of all 10,000-plus genes in the honeybee genome. There are tools that will allow us to see which genes are turned on and which genes are turned off in bees as they - as the colonies decline in health, and if we can recognize the sort of functional groups of genes, if they're immune-response genes, if they are detoxification genes - just having the genome has allowed investigators in many different parts of the country, all over the world, in fact - over 70 people were authors on the paper that announced the honeybee genome. Knowing the genetic composition of this insect gives us much greater insight into possible explanations.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can go to a couple of more calls. Let's go to Avery in Boulder. Hi, Avery.

AVERY (Caller): Hi. I have a question actually one for each of you. The one would be, what can a suburban gardener like me where we're not allowed to keep hives, what can we do other than avoiding chemicals to help the bees resurge? You know, like when they had that virus going on, I was very careful to try to help all the bees.

And the question for the other one of you is, I know that in this area, a lot of the local wasps got wiped out or pushed out by European paper wasps, and when I was talking to an entomologist, he said, well, they actually don't do any pollinating. They eat things, you know, like a vulture eats things, and I'm wondering if these European paper wasps are finding dead bees and eating them, and that's why they're not coming back to your hives to die. I know that's kind of science-fictiony, but...

Dr. BERENBAUM: Actually, Europe is having a problem. There is in Japan - maybe Danny can address this better. There's a nemesis that honeybees in Japan have, it's called the giant Asian hornet, the world's largest hornets, about three inches long, and they prey on bees.

Bees do have an elaborate system for defending themselves against giant Asian hornets, once the hornets are in the colony, but they can pick them off individually when they're away from home.

Now, if we had giant Asian hornets, someone would have noticed. I mean, I don't think that's our problem with disappearing bees, but you know, away from the hive, bees are very vulnerable. As for what an individual can do, you're already starting - you're doing it.

There are so many people whose knee-jerk response to seeing a honeybee is to flatten it. It's a bee, kill it, you know? So just to have an interest in providing an environment that is safe and conducive to the survival of honeybees is a great step.

FLATOW: Daniel Weaver, any last word?

Mr. WEAVER: Well, I want to thank you for focusing interest on this problem, which could be of enormous to anybody who likes to eat.

We're hopeful that with support of audience members and key people in Congress, we're going to be able - and of course the scientists that are going to conduct the investigations - that we're going to be able to get enough money to get to the bottom of this quickly and hopefully avoid a real calamity.

FLATOW: I wish you both good luck. Daniel Weaver, beekeeper, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thank you both.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Mr. WEAVER: Thank you.

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