Combing for clues

MSU researchers, students study the declining Michigan honeybee population, what can be done

By Katie Koerner (Last updated: 07/28/08 11:18pm)CORRECTION: Should have read there are 130 crops in the U.S. that rely on pollination from honeybees. Michigan’s fruits and vegetables that depend on pollination are valued at half a billion dollars per year and most scientists agree that there are nine known honeybee species.

The month of August not only marks the beginning for a new school year at MSU, but also the beginning of honey harvesting season for beekeepers across the state. But as students return to East Lansing they may be the only ones creating a buzz, as Michigan’s honeybee population is continually disappearing. For more than 20 years, Zachary Huang, an associate professor of entomology at MSU, has been studying bees, but it wasn’t until two years ago that an unusual disappearance of honeybees sent panic through beekeeping communities around the nation.

“Since 2006, about 25 percent of the honeybee population has been lost in our country and we don’t know why,” Huang said. “Beekeepers are opening up their hives and the bees are simply just not there.”

This unusual disappearance, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has boggled the minds of researchers ever since and is Huang’s main aspect of study at the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, 109 Agriculture Hall.

Catching the culprit

While his research has ruled out genetic disorders, geographical locations and radiation from cell phone towers as possible causes of CCD, Huang said he is still working to find exactly what is the cause.

“One thing we are looking at right now is bee migration,” Huang said. “Bees are transported by trucks to different locations for pollination, and we are researching what kind of psychological effects that has on the bees.”

Other areas of study include researching a type of harmful parasite that hinders a bee’s digestion and can eventually kill an entire colony, as well as a deadly bee disease known as nosema apis.

However, Huang said disappearing bee populations may not be able to be traced back to a single cause, but rather could be the combination of several factors.

“Bees may become weakened at first, exposed to harmful pesticides, or become stressed from their hive being moved or them being transported,” he said. “All these factors might not cause a problem alone but could be deadly when combined.”

Yu-Lun Lisa Fu, a graduate student working with Huang, has been involved in the research for two years and said she is researching the effects that three different essential oils have on the disease nosema apis.

“Nosema is a very important and serious disease responsible for killing honeybees,” Fu said.

“Last year, I conducted a study involving mite infestation in hives, using the same three essential oils I am now, and found that they all reduced mite infestation.”

Fu said she hopes the oils in this experiment will yield positive results again, and save bees from nosema apis.

Originally from Taiwan, Fu came to MSU to study honeybees and said if their disappearance continues to go unsolved, several fruit and vegetable crops could be entirely lost.

“Our environment relies on honeybees for its function,” she said. “The research we are doing will hopefully figure out what is happening and how we can stop it.”

Beneficial bees

Honeybees are responsible for the pollination of more than 130 Michigan crops, such as apples, blueberries, cherries, almonds and avocados, Huang said.

“One-third of the food eaten in the United States relies on the pollination from honeybees, and translates into about a half-a-million dollar industry for Michigan alone,” he said.

Joe Riddle, an entomology senior, has been working with bees since childhood and is currently involved with Huang’s research and the installment of the Mite Zapper.

“The Mite Zapper is placed inside bee hives and uses electricity to kill mites that enter the hive and endanger the bees and can contaminate the honey,” Riddle said.

“This is working to help the mite problem, but further research still needs to be conducted.”

Riddle is also involved with the MSU Student Organic Farm, 3291 College Road in Holt, which has formed a “Bee Team” of MSU students, staff and community members that are interested in learning about and researching bees.

“(The team) aims to build upon knowledge of bees and advance beekeeping techniques,” he said. “We need honeybees in our world, because if they disappear altogether so will things like fruits, vegetables, trees and flowers.”

Originally Published: 07/27/08 10:21pm



Author: Zachary Huang