- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What’s a honeybee worth? To picnic goers hoping to avoid being stung, the insects may seem like a nuisance. But honeybees play an essential role in pollinating fruits, vegetables and other crops, and to U.S. agriculture, these pollination services are worth nearly $15 billion a year. This makes honeybees the most economically important pollinators in the United States, and it also makes their disappearance over the past six months cause for concern but not alarm.

More troubling is that scientists have yet to understand why U.S. beekeepers reported an average loss of nearly 40 percent of their managed colonies between September 2006 and March. In Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the total loss is around 50 percent, and Ohio has lost fully 71 percent of its managed bee colonies, according to a study published in the American Bee Journal. The problem has emerged in Europe as well.

The honeybees aren’t simply dying off, however: They seem to disappear. Beekeepers find no carcasses either in or around the hive, and the queen, the young and sometimes a small group of adult bees remain. The fact that the bees fail to return, in addition to the sudden onset of the problem and its magnitude, sets the current phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), apart from previous declines in the honeybee population.

Scientists are considering a number of factors — or some combination thereof — that might explain this disturbing trend. Two species of mites caused a significant decline in the honeybee population in the 1980s, and mites or other parasites are one possibility for CCD. Another is some kind of pathogen, either bacterial, viral or fungal. Environmental stress from moving honeybee colonies frequently in order to pollinate fields in different states was also a possibility, but colonies that moved less frequently weren’t immune to CCD. Pesticides or other chemicals that beekeepers use may also be to blame, but researchers have yet to find any conclusive evidence.

Should the CCD problem continue at its current rate, the United States could face a shortage of pollinators.

The first step is to determine the cause of CCD. A bipartisan group of more than 30 senators sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in April requesting an investigate of CCD. Fortunately, federal researchers, along with their university counterparts, are diligently looking for answers.

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