Bee colony collapse mystery studied

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Bee experts from around the country are studying material from nearly abandoned hives in an effort to discover the cause of colony collapse disorder.

Contacted at his Harrisburg office, Pennsylvania's acting apiarist had just returned from California with hive samples.

In the coming weeks, California once again will become the honeybee center of the country, according to the state Department of Agriculture's Dennis vanEngelsdorp. As happens every year, about 1.5 million hives will be set up near almond orchards to pollinate that state's nut crop. "Beekeepers from nearly every state in the country will be sending bees," he said.

The first evidence of what has become a crisis for beekeepers and farmers who rely on honeybees to pollinate many of their crops began in November, he said. That's when a Pennsylvania beekeeper reported heavy losses among the hives he had transported to Florida. Other reports from Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina indicated that the die-off was widespread. Similar problems have been reported in Spain and Poland.

One of the things that makes this outbreak unusual is that beekeepers are finding hives in which only the queen and a handful of young bees remain. Most of the adult bees have fled the hive, but their bodies have not been located.

Researchers in Harrisburg, at Penn State, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at the University of Montana are studying viral diseases, parasitic mites, genetic diversity, insecticides, other toxins and beekeeping practices. That research is part of an effort to discover reasons for the big hive losses, Mr. vanEngelsdorp said. The effort is receiving financial support from the National Honey Board.

The current collapse appears to share symptoms similar to those reported during colony losses in the 1930s in Texas and in 1965 in Arkansas. "It's not brand new but it's never been on a scale like this," he said.

Pennsylvania's bee population has varied greatly. The state's population of feral bees -- formerly domestic honeybees that had fled their hives -- was wiped out by mite infestations in the 1980s.

The number of commercial colonies has ranged from as many as 80,000 to as few as 25,000 in recent years. The state was home to about 40,000 hives last summer, before the first reports of colony collapse were received.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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