Case of the Empty Hives

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Missing honeybees are baffling beekeepers and researchers, and could even trigger worldwide food shortages.

"In the United States, there are more than 100 crops that require bee pollination," said Diana Cox-Foster, a Pennsylvania State University professor of entomology who has studied the situation. She is one of the experts interviewed for "Silence of the Bees," a new documentary that begins the 26th season of PBS's "Nature" series.

The program, narrated by actor F. Murray Abraham, chronicles the strange vanishing act over the past year by billions of bees in the United States. Scientists and industry insiders weigh in on the search for a solution to the problem, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Recent bee disappearances in France and Spain have launched numerous theories, including the possibility of pesticide poisoning or even an AIDS-like virus.

The broadcast also projects what might happen if the honeybee population keeps dwindling, and real-time close-ups of the bees at work offer a glimpse of their place in agriculture. Bees pollinate about $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States -- accounting for about one in three bites of food Americans ingest, according to a Cornell University study. Beekeepers truck thousands of hives to blueberry fields, crop farms and orchards, but this season, fewer bees have been on the job.

"This year, the weather cooperated with pollination for major crops, even with fewer bees, but our fear is, if this continues, the number and health of bees will decrease to the point where it won't matter if we have good weather," Cox-Foster said.

She said she first became aware of the plight of the honeybee when Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg sought scientific answers from Penn State last fall. When he retrieved 400 hives he had brought to a site in Florida three weeks earlier, he discovered most were empty or nearly so.

Hackenberg and his colleagues asked themselves "all the questions about the bees -- stress, nutrition, everything, but no one had a straight answer," he said. "Scientists have found there is a virus, something that is compromising the bees' immune system, but they don't know what caused it."

The study of the CCD phenomenon has prompted others around the world to look more closely at their honeybees, Cox-Foster said, "to see if the same virus or similar causes are underlying what they're seeing. This is still a major question out there."

Other "Nature" broadcasts this season include segments on the animal mating game, the use of the horseshoe crab in medical technology and a filmmaker who plays surrogate parent to a pair of cheetah cubs.

-- Kathy Blumenstock



7 p.m., PBS 22

8 p.m., PBS 26

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