Mysterious ailment shrinks bee population

April 28, 2008 7:23:07 PM PDT
For the third year in a row, bees are on the minds of farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley.

The key pollinator for many of the foods we eat continues to vanish in alarming numbers. No one knows exactly why.

Some empty beehives in western Fresno County should be buzzing with activity, but a mysterious ailment is plaguing these hives; it's called colony collapse disorder.

Bees simply abandon their hives and die for no apparent reason.

"It's saddening because we've put a long time into this, 29 years and I kind of don't have much hope in it anymore," said beekeeper Keith Newton.

That's bad news to the state's billion dollar almond industry. Growers need bees to pollinate the flowers as fewer bees mean fewer almonds.

Beekeeper Keith Newton spent over $100,000 to ship new bees in from Australia after he lost his hives. He hopes the new bees are healthy enough to survive colony collapse disorder.

Hundreds of miles away, U.C. Davis entomologist Eric Mussen is also doing his best to keep his brood alive.

"We aren't quite sure what it is, how it operates or why. But it's a reoccurring phenomenon we'd love to see go away, but it doesn't seem to be going away," said entomologist Eric Mussen.

And U.C. Davis is one of the top bee schools in the country. In one of their classes, entomologist Claire Kremen teaches beekeepers how to selectively breed bees. The hope is that they can breed out whatever is causing collapse disorder.

"We're trying to select the drones and the queen mothers and the particular traits - trying to make bees that are more resistant to pest diseases, more productive things of that nature," said Kremen.

It's a small step, but won't likely lead to finding the "cause" of colony collapse disorder.

U.C. Davis is struggling to find answers; that's because there aren't enough people at Davis to do the research.

"All of a sudden we've been without any professors of apiculture at an institution that used to have three," said Mussen.

Through retirements and job transfers and budget cuts, Davis' entomology department has dwindled to just a handful of professors. No one is working exclusively on colony collapse disorder.

"Right now, we don't have one single person doing research in that area, just because we are between staffing at this point," said Entomology Department Chair Lynn Kimsey.

Kimsey says the university is adding two positions to the department.

"It's really important to build a strong group and to get rolling," said Kimsey.

But help is also coming from an unlikely source. The maker of Haagen Dazs ice cream has given U.C. Davis $100,000 to hire staff.

"Since nobody knows why honeybees are disappearing, it's incredibly important for us to find out why and also figure out how to have sustainable pollination for years to come and to continue to enjoy the natural foods we enjoy today," said Katty Pien Haagen Dazs.

Kimsey says the donation is vital to moving forward.

"It's going to take foundation money, grant money and private donations to really bring it up, because the state can't do it," said Kimsey.

And beekeepers worry they won't be able to do it much longer either. Some are beginning to wonder if the time has come to walk away from their hives altogether.

"I am not sure the economics of it are going to be viable," said Newton.

Researchers are stumped. Drought, global warming, a pathogen, nutrition, stress or a combination all those things may be behind colony collapse disorder.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.


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