Where have all the honeybees gone?

Colonies of vital crop pollinators disappearing
By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
July 10, 2007 6:00 AM

You can thank the humble honeybee for every third mouthful of your next meal.

But experts say bees didn’t generate much buzz from the public until entire hives began dying off earlier this year.

New bills in Congress would dedicate more than $86 million to study bees and the causes of colony collapse disorder, a little-understood phenomenon in which worker bees in a beehive abruptly disappear.

Why the concern? Bees pollinate more than 50 crops in California, including the almond haul, worth $143 million last year in San Joaquin County alone.

Mild weather and the sheer number of hives in California prevented the colony collapse from stinging crop production this year, said Orin Johnson, a Hughson beekeeper with hives in western San Joaquin County.

But Johnson is already worried about next year. Expected dry conditions this fall mean foothill wildflowers and pastures will be brown, and bees must be fed artificially. This could make them more vulnerable to the disorder.

“There were huge losses for some all over the country” this year, Johnson said. “If you didn’t stay right on top of hive inspections, there was a good chance you’d have problems.”

Conservationists have called for the use of native pollinators to supplement commercial hives. Farmers are encouraged to plant flower-rich strips that will attract other kinds of bees to pollinate their crops.

But wide swaths of agricultural land and development have reduced potential habitat for these other bees.

An overall decline in pollinators could make the United States more reliant upon imported foods, according to information in legislation introduced in late June by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. This makes deciphering colony collapse disorder all the more important. Its main symptom is a low number of adult bees in a hive. There are no bodies and no obvious sign of disease, pests or parasites.

Scott Black, director of the Portland, Ore.-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, called the legislation “vitally important,” although it’s too soon to say how serious colony collapse disorder will prove to be.

“Over the last 50 years, we’ve seen many downward blips in the population of honeybees,” Black said. “Oftentimes, they bounce back a bit. I think we need to wait until next year to really see the impact from this.”

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com.


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