The 2010 prognosis for honey bees doesn't look good, according to Jeff Pettis, Research Leader at the USDA Bee Lab.
Although hard data won't be available until April, preliminary surveys of our nation's beekeepers suggest that at least as many bee colonies have died off over the winter as they have the last few years — and possibly even more than in years past — thanks to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
I last spoke with Pettis in 2007, when I visited his lab as they researched the cause of CCD. Back then, they were pretty optimistic about finding the cause, but three years later answers are still elusive. I spoke to him this week about the state of the investigation.
Jeff Pettis: “We obviously think it’s more complicated than we first believed as in we don’t believe that we’re looking for a single virulent pathogen, although that can’t totally be ruled out. At first we were thinking that we’d find a single causative agent, a virulent pathogen sweeping through the bee population, and that doesn’t appear to be the case.”
So what's causing the die offs?
Pettis says it's looking more and more like there are several factors working in tandem to kill off the bees. They've found that colonies with CCD have an abundance of bacteria, viruses and a specific fungal disease, but none of these items alone can be singled out as the cause.
They've identified some plausible contributors to CCD and they’re about to test them out. This means they’ll try to recreate CCD in live colonies in the hopes of finding the right mix of factors. If they can accurately recreate CCD, they can better understand what's causing the die offs.
And here's the really bad news: This is the fourth year surveying honey bee losses across the U.S. In 2007, beekeepers lost 32 percent of their colonies. In 2008 they lost 36 percent. In 2009, 29 percent. Pettis suspects the 2010 numbers will be as bad or worse than these previous surveys.
In a normal year, about 15 to 20 percent of bee colonies will die off. With CCD increasing, those numbers rise by a third or more. Beekeepers are spending most of their time splitting healthy colonies in half and nursing those colonies back to strength in order to meet the nation’s pollination needs.
If there’s good news to report, it’s that with the ongoing national attention being given to CCD, bee researchers are getting more assistance from their scientific counterparts in other disciplines, as well as more funding from Congress to help sort it out.
To see Jeff Pettis and his lab in action, check out the video below: