Bee colonies on the ropes

Web-posted Jun 6, 2007

Experts perplexed as whole hives of adults just disappear
By CHRISTOPHER SCRIBNER
Special to The Oakland Press

An unknown threat is endangering honeybees and the estimated $450 million value they provide in pollinating Michigan crops.”People don’t realize the value of the honeybee,” said Sue Yates, who owns and operates a bee farm in Ortonville with her husband, Larry. Without them, “you’re down to wind-pollinated food, which means you’re down to (eating) oatmeal and cornmeal mush.”

Honeybees pollinate one-third of crops, including Michigan staples such as apples, blueberries and cherries.

“You and I want a nice-quality apple,” said State Department of Agriculture apiarist Mike Hansen. “If they don’t get enough pollination, we won’t find that.”

Apples need frequent pollinating to produce numerous seeds and to grow to full potential.

Of the 124 crops in Michigan, 65 rely on honeybee pollination, Hansen said. And Michigan has the second-highest diversity of crops of all states, after California.

But neither beekeepers nor state experts know why honeybees are vanishing.

Zachary Huang, a professor of entomology at Michigan State University, has been studying honeybees for 25 years.

He described the phenomenon, dubbed “colony collapse disorder,” that accounted for an estimated 8 percent loss – 5,000 colonies – of Michigan’s honeybee population since last year, and a 25 percent loss – 700,000 colonies – nationwide.

“It’s pretty sudden, it’s not gradual. The adults will disappear in a colony in three days to a week. They just totally disappear, and it doesn’t seem to be quite normal.”

“To have bee losses in Michigan is not completely abnormal,” Hansen said. In a typical winter, 50 percent of honeybee colonies will not survive.

But those bees succumb to known threats: parasitic mites, brood diseases, insecticides or starvation.

Huang said colony collapse disorder, because it cannot be explained, poses a threat greater than any of the others.

He received a $60,000 grant from Michigan State University to research and investigate the origins of the disorder, which could prove myriad.

Beekeepers and experts seem to agree that the collapse affects the bees of migratory beekeepers – those who haul their honeybees in 18-wheelers cross-country and rent them to farmers who need crops pollinated.

The added stress of travel on the bees and the close proximity to other colonies could be exacerbating and spreading the disorder’s effects.

Jerry Dunbar, the Michigan Beekeepers Association representative for District 3, which encompasses Oakland County, blames the collapse on bad bee food.

“The high-fructose corn syrup these commercial guys are feeding their honeybees is made from genetically modified corn, which is made to hurt insects,” he said.

With 70 years of beekeeping experience, Sue Yates suspects the bees are simply getting lost.

She prefaced her idea with the fact that bees see ultraviolet light.

“We have more holes in the ozone, we get more ultraviolet light and that could be confusing,” she said.

She reasoned that the foraging bees could get disoriented and never find the hive again.

[The Oakland Press]

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