The Nation's Pulse

The Flight of the Bumblebee

Something strange is happening to the nation's bee industry.

By 3.28.07

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Something strange is happening to the nation's bee industry. The worker bees are leaving the hive, as if to reconnoiter blossoms, but they aren't coming back. The phenomenon even has a name -- "colony collapse disorder," or C-C-D.

Beekeeper Lance Sundberg of Columbus, Montana, says his hive inventory diminished from 5,600 to 3,800 in seven months ending in February. Sundberg attributes half of the loss to mites, a common malady of bees, but the rest he chalks up to CCD. Researchers report the losses are hitting beekeepers in about 24 states. Jerry Bromenshenk, CEO of "Bee Alert Technology" headquartered in the University of Montana town, Missoula, Montana, says this is a "critical time for beekeeping" and beekeepers are urged to report their losses to him. He leads one of the few research teams trying to unravel the mystery.

It may surprise many to learn that beekeepers don't make the major share of their income from honey. Rather, they transport their hives, by the thousands, to places where crop pollination is needed. An estimated 90 percent of Montana's 130,000 hives travel to California to pollinate the almond crop. Sundberg this week was in Washington State in the apple orchards.

A major beekeeper, David Hackenberg, of Pennsylvania and Florida, says of his 47 years in the bee business "this is the biggest" loss. And mystery. Beemen deal with two kinds of mites that afflict bees, one microscopic, the other the size of a pinhead. But neither seem the culprits of CCD.

Hackenberg lost more than half of some 3,000 hives he trucked to Florida last fall. Speculation ranges from some new uncatalogued virus, to climatological change, to the advent of a new class of chemicals used as pesticides. The latter may not be uniformly deadly when directly sprayed on bees, Hackenberg notes, but may become so when used on crops that then bloom and are visited by bees. The bee immune system goes haywire. It forgets much of its intuitive nature, flies off, and forgets to come home. Ergo: CCD. A possibility not unknown to many an errant husband.

Truth to tell, much if not most of what America eats is made possible because someplace, sometime, a bee pollinated a blossom. This week in Washington, a House Agriculture Subcommittee holds a hearing on America's bee problem. What with a war in Iraq, recalcitrance in Iran, and political judo in the Justice Department, it may not get much buzz.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.