The Flight of the Honeybee: A Mystery That Matters

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Billy Davis of Purcellville used to breed cattle. Now he raises honeybees. Which carry more weight? Bees, of course. Through their industry and sheer numbers, these pollinators give us almost a third of our food.

So the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the bee might sound like fare for a sci-fi horror film. But as you may have heard by now, this is happening across the United States, attributed to a new and deadly malady named colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

Most people don't think about this, but bees make possible the mass production of apples, peaches, beans, squash and almonds, to name a few of life's staples. In my garden, the honeybees secure the fruit set on my cucumber and squash plants, allow the hellebores to seed profusely, bring about the apples of September, and give the gift of berries to the birds in fall and winter. This may not be the mega-business of agriculture, but it is part of our tenuous connection to nature in this urban existence. Hug a bee, I say.

Under the CCD scenario, worker bees fly off in search of pollen and nectar, but their homing instruments, usually good for miles, fail them and they vanish. Other bees assigned duties within a hive take over the foraging role, until they, too, disappear. In a few days, the tens of thousands of bees in a healthy colony dwindle to a few hundred and then just to the queen and her attendants. A beekeeper will crack open the lid of a hive and peer into honeycombed frames full of stored pollen and honey and with cells brimming with ghostly white bee larvae, abandoned and doomed, and see none of the quivering mass of honeybees needed for the queen and her offspring to survive. It is the equivalent of encountering that 19th-century ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, except we are talking whole armadas of empty hives.

Beekeepers and entomologists are alarmed by the speed and scale of the losses. The Apiary Inspectors of America estimate that CCD has claimed a quarter of the estimated 2.4 million hives nationwide just since last fall. In Pennsylvania, beekeepers who reported CCD symptoms lost an average 73 percent of their hives. In Virginia, winter losses averaged approximately 40 percent, about 10 percent higher than normal, though the state doesn't ask beekeepers to assign cause, said Keith Tignor, the state apiarist. Maryland's apiarist, Jerry Fischer, said only half the state's 9,000 bee colonies survived the winter, but the high losses are attributed to wild swings in winter weather rather than CCD.

Winter hive losses are a common part of beekeeping, and the rate became much higher after colonies became infested with two species of parasitic mite. One of the three hives in my back yard died off in late winter. Marc Hoffman, a beekeeper in Montgomery County, said four of his 18 hives died. Our losses were not from CCD. Hoffman said in his case, January's warmth spurred the queen to start laying eggs early, and when the freezing weather arrived in February, the colony of worker bees wouldn't leave the brood to tap into their food reserves elsewhere in the hive. Such a natural loss would be marked by the bodies of the dead bees on the bottom board, and soon other bees might move in for the free digs and provisions, as might a couple of pests, the wax moth or small hive beetle. Hives afflicted with CCD, however, remain eerily quiet. Even the freeloaders stay away.

This spooky silence descended this spring on two of Billy Davis's 100 hives in Loudoun County. Davis notes that beekeepers two centuries ago reported mysterious die-offs. "They called them dwindling disease," he said. But CCD "for the first time has affected a massive number of bees."

The syndrome has most affected hives trucked from crop to crop by beekeepers, who make a living renting the bees to fruit and nut growers across the United States. Beekeepers I talk to believe this ever-shifting existence creates stresses that weaken a colony's resistance to pests and diseases, especially when you mass them all together. "When you put everyone in a room they all come down with the same flu," said Pat Haskell, a beekeeper in Annandale.

But the actual cause -- the subject of congressional inquiry and intense scientific detective work -- has yet to be determined. Many theories have been floated, including one that cellphone microwaves were wrecking the bees' radar. Davis wonders whether it is some fungus. One notion with currency in the blogosphere is that the bees are making their rapturous ascent into heaven in advance of Judgment Day.

Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist testifying before the House subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture, raised concerns about a class of pesticide now in broad use and known to be highly toxic to bees. Synthetic versions of nicotine poisons, they include the popular imidacloprid, used extensively as a systemic pesticide on sucking insects. It was banned in France after authorities there claimed a link between its use and honeybee disorientation.

Is there a silver lining in all this? Bees have been under dire pressure for years from the mites, but the new syndrome is raising awareness of the insect's plight. Haskell reported healthy enrollment in beekeeping classes this year in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County as beginners see the hobby as a way of personally taking action in the face of worrying global environmental issues such as climate change and, now, colony collapse disorder.

There is also an underlying hysteria about bees because of the spread of aggressive Africanized honeybees into the Gulf States from Mexico over the past 10 years or so.

"Farmland gets developed and homeowner associations get the idea they should restrict beekeeping," Hoffman said, "so it's very important that people understand how important bees are."

Meanwhile, beekeepers whose hives have so far escaped the syndrome count their blessings, seek to coddle their charges and try to hide their fears. The other day, I came across one of my bees stopped in her tracks by a cold rain. I picked her up, dried her in my hands, and offered some honey. After a few minutes, she was buzzing again and ready to return to the hive. I hope.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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