Bee numbers dropping

August 14, 2013

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Pettis, interviewed below, is a senior researcher at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

From: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Reporter: Jane Cowan


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Albert Einstein said that if bees become extinct, the human race was only going to have a few years to live because of the threat to the food supply. Now honey bees worldwide are dying at unprecedented rates leaving scientists scratching their heads. In the US it’s so serious the nation’s agricultural industry is said to be just one bad weather event from a pollination crisis. North America correspondent Jane Cowan explains.

JANE COWAN, REPORTER: Dawn in cranberry country in Massachusetts. In the relative cool of the morning third generation beekeeper Glenn Card is moving precious cargo.

GLEN CARD, BEEKEEPER: Right now we’re running five different farms, we have 28,000 hives.

JANE COWAN: These beehive s, more than 400 of them, carrying as many as 30,000 bees each, have spent the past three weeks here pollinating the cranberry blossoms.

VAN JOHNSON, CRANBERRY GROWER: Bees are vital. Just how vital I don’t think there’s any, any cranberry growers that want to forego not employing the bees the find out how vital they are.

JANE COWAN: Before they were brought to this cranberry bog, the bees were used to pollinate almonds, blueberries and Apples, something like a third of the human diet depends on fruits, nuts and vegetables directly pollinated by bees or other insects.

But the bees aren’t as healthy as they used to be. For the past seven years an average of 30 per cent of America’s bee population has been lost every season. Double the previous die off.

GLEN CARD: We definitely see a lot more what we call queen failure from time to time so you’re seeing maybe older queens or queens succumbing to something, whether it be age or some parasites or something that makes them fail.

JANE COWAN: Keeping colonies healthy enough to resist disease means dietary supplements for the bees and extra monitoring, all new expenses that are stretching the economics of commercial bee keeping.

GLEN CARD: It definitely has affected us. I mean our feed costs have sky rocketed.

JEFF PETTIS, ENTOMOLOGIST: I’m getting real comfortable with death on an epic scale.

JANE COWAN: It’s a problem worldwide. In China apple and pear farmers have resorted to painstaking hand pollination because of a drastic decline in wild bee populations.

JEFF PETTIS: The queen you can see she’s much larger than the other workers. They’re all female but basically she’s is egg laying machine of the colony. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.

JANE COWAN: Exactly what’s ailing the bees is a mystery entomologist Jeff Pettis is trying to solve.

JEFF PETTIS: There’s no simple answer to what’s going on with honey bees. It’s a multitude of factors. We have a parasitic mite, you have poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, you have a lot of different diseases that bees have. So it’s a multitude of things that they’re trying to take advantage of a honey bee colony.

JANE COWAN: Complicating the picture is a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, the unexplained loss of almost all the worker bees from a colony.

JEFF PETTIS: It is serious. In the US we actually only manage about 2.5 million colonies and we use over 60 per cent of those in one crop, in the almond crop in California. When we have a 30 per cent loss we don’t have much in the way of a buffer, we don’t have much extra to meet our pollination needs so we’re literally one poor weather event away from a pollination crisis.

JANE COWAN: Even as the commercial bee industry comes under pressure and urban bee keeping movement is flourishing, including on roof tops in Washington DC.

MAGGIE KOZIOL, URBAN BEE KEEPER: There’s something incredibly meditative to bee keeping and you sit there and you watch the bees and sometimes they will take a beer on the roof and sometimes sit there and watch the bees.

JANE COWAN: But novice beekeepers are encountering problems too.

MAGGIE KOZIOL: Last year we installed one hive on our roof and in the fall we probably about October, November, we discovered mites and within three weeks I knew both of us knew that there was no way our bees were going to survive the winter. They just killed them. It was very fast and we did everything that we could to try and rescue them but when we opened the hive in March they were all dead.

JANE COWAN: What’s disappointing for recreational beekeepers is a matter of economic life and death for commercial operators.

Back on the cranberry bog, Glenn Card is grateful to be so far fairly unscathed but for how long?

GLEN CARD: You know, it’s kind of like that looking behind you all the time, when’s it going to be us, you know? When are we going to have our collapse because it’s happened to a lot of people we know and it’s happened to people bigger than us and it’s happened to people smaller than us.

JANE COWAN: The journey these hives take pollinating crops from one side of the country to the other underlines the threat to the entire agricultural industry.

GLEN CARD: Everything connects to the consumer. If we have increased costs it doesn’t necessarily make us go out of business but we have to increase our costs which increase the growers costs, which increases the, you know, ultimately the consumers, the end users, the people in the store. I mean strawberries would become a luxury item like caviar or something, you know.

JANE COWAN: Not yet Einstein’s Armageddon but the loss of nature’s winged workers posed no insignificant threat to the global food supply.

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