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Suddenly, the bees are simply vanishing

Scientists are at a loss to pinpoint the cause. The die-off in 35 states has crippled beekeepers and threatened many crops.

June 10, 2007|By Jia-Rui Chong and Thomas H. Maugh II | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The dead bees under Dennis vanEngelsdorp's microscope were like none he had ever seen.

He had expected to see mites or amoebas, perennial pests of bees. Instead, he found internal organs swollen with debris and strangely blackened. The bees' intestinal tracts were scarred, and their rectums were abnormally full of what appeared to be partly digested pollen. Dark marks on the sting glands were telltale signs of infection.

"The more you looked, the more you found," said VanEngelsdorp, the acting apiarist for the state of Pennsylvania. "Each thing was a surprise."

VanEngelsdorp's examination of the bees in November was one of the first scientific glimpses of a mysterious honeybee die-off that has launched an intense search for a cure.

The puzzling phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has been reported in 35 states, five Canadian provinces and several European countries. The die-off has cost U.S. beekeepers about $150 million in losses and an uncertain amount for farmers scrambling to find bees to pollinate their crops.

Scientists have scoured the country, finding eerily abandoned hives in which the bees seem to have simply left their honey and broods of baby bees.

"We've never experienced bees going off and leaving brood behind," said Pennsylvania-based beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. "It was like a mother going off and leaving her kids."

Researchers have picked through the abandoned hives, dissected thousands of bees, and tested for viruses, bacteria, pesticides and mites.

So far, they are stumped.

According to the Apiary Inspectors of America, 24% of 384 beekeeping operations across the country lost more than 50% of their colonies from September to March. Some have lost 90%.

"I'm worried about the bees," said Dan Boyer, 52, owner of Ridgetop Orchards in Fishertown, Pa., which grows apples. "The more I learn about it, the more I think it is a national tragedy."

At Boyer's orchard, 400 acres of apple trees -- McIntosh, Honey Crisp, Red Delicious and 11 other varieties -- have just begun to bud white flowers.

Boyer's trees need to be pollinated. Incompletely pollinated blooms would still grow apples, he said, but the fruit would be small and misshapen, suitable only for low-profit juice.

This year, he will pay dearly for the precious bees -- $13,000 for 200 hives, the same price that 300 hives cost him last year.

The scene is being repeated throughout the country, where honeybees, scientifically known as Apis mellifera, are required to pollinate a third of the nation's food crops, including almonds, cherries, blueberries, pears, strawberries and pumpkins.

Vanishing colonies

One of the earliest alarms was sounded by Hackenberg, who used to keep about 3,000 hives in dandelion-covered fields near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.

In November, Hackenberg, 58, was at his winter base in Florida. He peeked in on a group of 400 beehives he had driven down from his home in West Milton, Pa., a month before. He went from empty box to empty box. Only about 40 had bees in them.

"It was just the most phenomenal thing I thought I'd ever seen," he said.

The next morning, Hackenberg called Jerry Hayes, the chief of apiary inspection at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and president of the Apiary Inspectors of America.

Hayes mentioned some bee die-offs in Georgia that, until then, hadn't seemed significant.

Hackenberg drove back to West Milton with a couple of dead beehives and live colonies that had survived. He handed them over to researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

With amazing speed, the bees vanished from his other hives, more than 70% of which were abandoned by February.

Hackenberg, a talkative, wiry man with a deeply lined face, figured he lost more than $460,000 this winter for replacement bees, lost honey and missed pollination opportunities.

"If that happens again, we're out of business," he said.

It didn't take researchers long to figure out they were dealing with something new.

VanEngelsdorp, 37, quickly eliminated the most obvious suspects: Varroa and tracheal mites, which have occasionally wrought damage on hives since the 1980s.

At the state lab in Harrisburg, Pa., VanEngelsdorp checked bee samples from Pennsylvania and Georgia. He washed bees with soapy water to dislodge Varroa mites and cut the thorax of the bees to look for tracheal mites; he found that the number of mites was not unusually high.

His next guess was amoebic infection. He scanned the bees' kidneys for cysts and found a handful, but not enough to explain the population decline.

VanEngelsdorp dug through scientific literature looking for other mass disappearances.

He found the first reference in a 1869 federal report, detailing a mysterious bee disappearance. There was only speculation as to the cause -- possibly poisonous honey or maybe a hot summer.

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