- Associated Press - Friday, March 5, 2010

A team of researchers from universities across the nation are urgently trying to develop a strain of “super” honeybees to ward off a mysterious malady that has been decimating U.S. colonies for the past three years.

Scientists continue to search for the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a malady that has greatly reduced the U.S. bee population.

“Over the past three years on average, our surveys have said that we’ve lost about 30 percent of the (2.4 million) colonies nationwide,” said Jeffery Pettis, a lead bee researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Of that figure, the government suspects 13 percent is because of CCD.

With this alarming rate, scientists are turning their attention to the bee itself. Their plan is to create a new honeybee that is resistant to the disorder.

Honeybees are the greatest pollinators on Earth. Nearly one-third of U.S. agriculture depends on the 2.4 million bee colonies for big crop production, where they annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops, a Cornell University study estimates.

Keith Delaplane, a national expert on honeybees and a Walter B. Hill Fellow at the University of Georgia, is leading a team of 21 researchers from 18 universities across the nation, with funding from the federal government, to discover and solve what’s killing the bees.

“We have met all of our bench marks for year one,” said Mr. Delaplane. “We are spot on target on everything. The research is cooking.”

Things are cooking, but it’s still a mess in the kitchen and in the laboratory and the hopeful timeline of three years or less to find the solution still has a long way to go.

“CCD is many things. It’s not one thing,” he said. “And it’s going to be difficult to reverse it because it is a very messy combination of science and education.”

An estimated 80,000 American beekeepers are desperate for answers. And their plea has reached Washington, with the USDA pumping $4.1 million into this time-critical research.

“I’d like to give it a tighter timeline,” said Mr. Pettis. “We’re working heavily on a number of fronts.”

Through the growing science of genomics - the science of looking at molecular information in DNA - Mr. Delaplane’s science team will select a super-resistant bee that is able to naturally combat CCD and a culprit in this disorder: varroa mites.

First, “We’re going to be identifying bees that are resistant to XYZ” diseases, he said. Then, “We will be able to genetically mark these lines.”

The technique of marking and using favorable genetic traits is now done in the animal and plant industry, but marking a natural trait is different than engineering a change.

“We have no plan for doing [genetic] engineered selections,” Mr. Delaplane said. “We’re going to be screening for natural resistance.”

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