Bee Deaths, Loss of Navigation Cause Concern

An affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder is killing honey bees in large numbers. May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois, says a bigger mystery is why bees are not returning to their hives. Are environmental conditions destroying the bees' navigation system?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One major development in our environment recently is something that's not happening. Across North America, the honey makers and pollinators, honeybees are disappearing in unprecedented numbers.

This is called colony collapse disorder, and we're going to find out what it is from Dr. May Berenbaum. She studies the disorder at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and she testified recently before a congressional committee on this. Welcome to the program.

Dr. MAY BERENBAUM (Department of Entomology, University of Illinois): Pleasure to be here, thanks.

INSKEEP: Have you ever seen anything like this?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, historically, there have been inexplicable disappearances of honeybees. But they, in the past, have tended to be far more localized. This is the most extensive of the episodes of disappearances.

INSKEEP: What's happening?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, actually, this first came to light through bee keepers who noticed that healthy colonies suddenly became just mere skeletal remains of colonies with just a handful of very young workers. And honeybee societies are so intricately structured that they can't really run with just young adults.

INSKEEP: So you had these colonies that suddenly were afflicted by the equivalent of the plague or a nuclear war.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, not so much - more of neutron bomb than nuclear war. Because nuclear war leaves - and the plague - leave bodies behind. What's truly mysterious about this most recent phenomenon is its disappearances. The worker bees are just not returning to the hive.

Honeybees have an incredibly sophisticated orientation and navigations system, as well as a communication system, to indicate to their nest mates where promising sources of pollen and nectar are. So they have all the tools to navigate, yet they seem to be failing to return.

INSKEEP: Why does this matter?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Why does the disappearance of honeybee's matter? Well, it matters in the United States because about 90 crops depend on honeybee pollination. It's been estimated that honeybee contributions to U.S. agriculture exceed $14 billion a year. We've really come to rely on them for much of what eat, about a third of the American diet.

INSKEEP: So having had an opportunity to study this, why do you think bees are disappearing?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, there are probably almost as many hypotheses as there are missing bees. It's been suggested that there's a new passage and it's been introduced and spreading through honeybee populations, although one hasn't been clearly identified yet. It's been suggested that there are combinations of factors that have suppressed the honeybee immune systems in a way analogous to the way AIDS suppresses human immune systems. It's been suggested that there are trace components of neurotoxic insecticides in the environment that don't kill bees outright but have sub-lethal effects that disrupt behavior, such as orientation and navigation. There are all kinds of theories.

INSKEEP: Is the Earth trying to tell me something?

Dr. BERENBAUM: Well, actually we've had some people who have suggested this is maybe bee rapture, in the early stages of being recalled to heaven. And a number of people think that bees are kind of canaries in coalmines, that bees do manage because they have such extraordinarily (unintelligible) taste, they can visit all kind of flowers and they fly through all kinds of environments that they are encountering enough disturbance in the environment that perhaps they are early indicators of a general loss of quality.

INSKEEP: When people are working together to study bees, do they tell bee jokes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BERENBAUM: I guess that kind of goes with the business. I personally think that one reason that colony class disorder has attracted so much media attention is it gives the media an opportunity to use bee puns, like losing their buzz, making a beeline, and the like.

INSKEEP: I'm stung by your accusations against media.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BERENBAUM: Bee afraid. Bee very afraid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, May Berenbaum, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Dr. BERENBAUM: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: She's with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This is NPR News.

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