Bee Mystery Solved?

Mike Albans for The New York Times

Just how important are bees to our well-being? The mystery of widespread “colony collapse disorder” (CCD)- a disease that has wiped out 20 to 40 percent of bee colonies since 2006- has inspired an unlikely partnership between military scientists and entomologists, and it appears they may have cracked the case.  According to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts from the University of Montana’s College of Technology, the culprits may be a fungus and a virus that somehow work together to compromise insect nutrition.

Until now, suspected causes have included pollution, pesticides, genetically modified foods, reality television (OK, maybe not that last one, but pretty much everything else has been blamed). Experts have scrambled to identify (and address) the cause, with many believing the loss of bee colonies would inexorably alter life on this planet. Here in the United States, the monetary value of honey bees as pollinators of commercial crops is estimated at about $15 billion years. It’s thought that about a third of the food we eat has been pollinated by insects, about 80 percent of that by bees.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, to see the urgency in trying to solve the mystery of CCD. As Kirk Johnson writes in his piece for the New York Times, “researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.”

Johnson writes,

One perverse twist of colony collapse that has compounded the difficulty of solving it is that the bees do not just die — they fly off in every direction from the hive, then die alone and dispersed. That makes large numbers of bee autopsies — and yes, entomologists actually do those — problematic.

Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.

“It’s chicken and egg in a sense — we don’t know which came first,” Dr. Bromenshenk said of the virus-fungus combo — nor is it clear, he added, whether one malady weakens the bees enough to be finished off by the second, or whether they somehow compound the other’s destructive power. “They’re co-factors, that’s all we can say at the moment,” he said. “They’re both present in all these collapsed colonies.”

At LTT, we geek out over bees- you might even say this possible breakthrough caused quite a buzz here- so we’ll be following this story.

Other related LTT posts:

German Airport To Use Bees To Monitor Air Quality

UK Supermarket to keep bees

[Source: NY Times]

  • Tags: Conversation on Conservation, People, Places
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