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March 5, 2009

No Single Source Found For Bee Decline

Growing evidence shows that there is likely no proof that a mysterious disease has resulted in the deaths of billions of bees, BBC News reported.

Increasing incidences of unexplained bee deaths have been reported all over the world in what is now being called "Colony Collapse Disorder," yet U.S. bees seem to be disappearing the fastest.

However, some experts called the term misleading, saying there is no single, new ailment ravaging bee colonies.

Some 80 percent of the world's almonds come from California, where the honeybee is of crucial importance to the local economy. The bee's growing absence since 2004 is forcing almond growers to transport billions of bees from across the country in order to pollinate the almond blossoms.

Almonds are the U.S.'s most valuable horticultural export.

Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper from Pennsylvania, was one of the first beekeepers to raise concern.

"I started opening a few hives, and they were completely empty boxes, no bees. I got real frantic and I started looking at lots of beehives, I noticed that there were no dead bees on the ground, there weren't any bodies there," Hackenberg recalled, adding that other bees would not go near the deserted colonies.

Since that time, some 2 million colonies of bees have vanished across the U.S. and the losses have continued, but at a slower rate. Scientists are unsure of the nature of the affliction, with empty hives and no clearly defined infection to pinpoint.

A stable of detrimental ailments have affected the honeybee since the 1980s, including the varroa mite and numerous other deadly viruses, but the recent dramatic disappearances have some experts convinced something else is afoot.

These concerns have led to the development of a concept called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which applies to colonies that have died off despite no appearance of any high level of parasites.

"The colony was once strong, it reared a lot of young developing bees and then the adult bee population simply disappeared or died," said Dr. Jeff Pettis, a researcher who has studied bee colonies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Lab.

"With those symptoms it certainly is unique and it doesn't really match up with our expectations for parasitic mite loss and the like," he told BBC News.

Researchers are currently focusing on clues as to the exact cause of the disorder and many senior scientists suggest the "disorder" does not exist as a separate illness.

The term could even be distracting scientists from other work, according to Dr. Dennis Anderson, a principal research scientist on entomology with the Australian research organization CSIRO.

He says CCD is misleading in the fact that the general public, beekeepers, and now even researchers are under the impression that there's some mysterious disorder in bee colonies.

"Researchers around the world are running round trying to find the cause of the disorder, and there's absolutely no proof that there's a disorder there," he said.

Many experts in the U.S. share this view.

Frank Eischen, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been conducting experiments at an isolated almond orchard in the Central Valley area of California and agrees it is "probably true" that there was no new single disease.

"We've seen these kinds of symptoms before, during the seventies, during the nineties, now," he said. "It's probably not a unique event in beekeeping to have large numbers of colonies die."

But other experts say a wide variety of ailments such as varroa mite infestation, which suck the bees' blood and weaken their immune systems, and urbanization, which deprives bees of nutrition as natural pastures are covered over, are creating a so-called "perfect storm" that is leading to the decline of colonies all over the world.

The possible impact of agricultural pesticides has become a chief concern amongst some experts, as these chemicals can act like alcohol on humans, disorienting the bees and causing them to get lost on the way home.

Some experts believe the intensity of agriculture could be the real underlying cause of bee stress, given the working life of a bee is often difficult, according to commercial beekeeper Dave Hackenberg.

"My bees are in California pollinating almonds. In the middle of March they are going to be trucked all the way across the United States all the way back to Florida to pollinate oranges then they are trucked another thousand miles north to pollinate apples in Pennsylvania," Hackenberg said.

"When they go to these places, the only thing that's there is the crop that you pollinate, it's a big monoculture.

"We all like steak and potatoes and we all like corn, but if we eat any of these on their own for a month at a time then your body would not be in the best of shape."

Still, many critics are not entirely convinced of the concept of CCD, chalking it up to just another public relations stunt designed to attract public sympathy.

While he doesn't necessarily believe that CCD is simply a P.R. move, Eischen believes it has successfully highlighted problems in the food supply.

"We rely on farming, and to have that brought to the fore by the press that there is a problem with something as fundamental as getting fruit to produce, trees to bear, vegetables to yield and it all comes together with the bee coming to a flower and performing a vital service," he said.

He said the imagery strikes at the heartstrings of a lot of citizens and from that respect it has been beneficial.

"It highlights the hard work it takes to bring a crop to market."

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