- 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.”

Afterward, Mr. Delaplane’s team will take those disease-resistant bees and breed more of them. Here science is guiding the process of natural selection.

Once the genetically strong bees are developed in the laboratory, they will be shipped to commercial bee breeders. The breeders, in turn, will mass produce them and flood the market with disease-resistant bees to beekeepers across the country. CCD may still be around, but the superbee’s immune system will effectively combat it.

The prevailing theory on the cause of CCD includes several factors. The three main suspects of CCD are: viruses, stress and pesticides. When joined together these factors may create the deadly disease, researchers say.

Currently, there are 18 known viruses adversely affecting honeybees. Mr. Delaplane’s group is targeting two of them.

“There’s a couple of viruses that keep bubbling to the top …,” said Mr. Delaplane.

One of them is the deformed-wing virus, which causes the bees’ wings to become disfigured, hampering or preventing flight. It is caused by the varroa mite riding on the adult bee, which is then passed to baby bees growing in the comb. It was first discovered in bees from Japan in the 1980s.

The second one is the Israeli acute paralysis virus, which causes the bees’ wings to shake violently, inducing paralysis and death. It was first identified in Israel in 2004 by Hebrew University researchers, but its origin is not known.

In addition to viruses plaguing the bees, their immune system is under considerable stress by the constant moving to pollinate. The major commercial migration for bees is from the Midwest to California in October and November.

“Beekeepers move their bees on flat-bed trucks from coast to coast,” Mr. Delaplane said. This migratory lifestyle “totally disrupts” the bees seasonal rhythm.

“We always think: busy as a bee. Well, actually they are not that busy,” Mr. Delaplane said. In nature, most of the time, they are “hunkered down.”

James Rushfeld, a Wisconsin commercial beekeeper and trucker who hauls bees throughout the country at about 500 hives per load, said he is losing a substantial amount of his load to CCD.

“We lost about half of our bees two seasons ago,” he said. “Last year our bees did a little better.”

Returning home from California in 2008, Mr. Rushfeld found a vast amount of hives empty. “The bees were gone,” he said. “In CCD, the bees just kind of disappear.”

Problems with pesticides using neonicotinoids, which attack the central nervous system of insects, also get a lot of attention.

“You go anywhere in the world and look at the time frame when they started using neonicotinoids,” said David Hackenberg, owner of Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisburg, Pa., and the first person to report CCD. “As the increase of neonicotinoids spread, the bigger the problem becomes.”

In November 2006 Mr. Hackenberg said he saw the first signs of CCD and reported it to researchers.

Two years earlier, he serviced an apple orchard in upstate New York that had been recently sprayed with neonicotinoids. After his semiload of 400 hives pollinated the orchard, he rolled out to pollinate some neighboring blueberries. That’s when things became strange in May.

Mr. Hackenberg said the healthy spring bees began swarming in mass, which never occurs in early spring.

“They disappeared,” he said. “I don’t know where they went.”

But what the bees left was just as puzzling.

“The interesting thing about it is the honey boxes are sitting here full of honey,” Mr. Hackenberg said. Bees only abandon their vital honey in dire circumstances.

“I’ve been at this [business] 40 some years. I’ve never seen anything like this. They fly off into no man’s land I guess,” Mr. Hackenberg said.

Where the bees disappear to is a mystery. But many in the bee business are convinced the disappearing act is connected to neonicotinoids.

“Neonicotinoids, like most insecticides, are toxic to honeybees,” said Jack Boyne, an entomologist and director of communications at Bayer CropScience, a leading producer of neonicotinoids.

The product is used nationwide. But its use is limited or banned in some European countries.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of research on our neonicotinoid products,” Mr. Boyne said. “None of our research, and that of independent scientists, has supported the claim that they are a major cause, or even a cause of CCD.”

“To assume that pesticides are the cause of this (CCD) problem is a convenient, but erroneous conclusion in our opinion,” said Mr. Boyne.

CCD has been reported elsewhere, including Europe. But in countries such as Australia the disease is absent. The bee populations are also healthy in Greece and in the African countries.

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