Area researchers believe bee malnutrition contributes to a mysterious phenomenon that wiped out 30 percent of domestic honeybee hives.
“Something like poor nutrition will set up many things,” said Gloria Degrandi-Hoffman, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson. “Just like humans, if bees are not eating well they are likely to come down with illnesses and be less resistant to diseases and stresses.”
Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, saw vast numbers of adult worker bees abandon their hives and die, leaving crops unpollinated.
Out of 2.5 million hives in the United States, about 750,000 were lost by last winter, said Jeff Pettis, research leader at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
“I think nutrition is one of the basic components of CCD,” Degrandi-Hoffman said.
Bees are now tasked with pollinating specialized crops bereft of weeds and other plants offering a more diversified diet of pollens, she said. A third of all food consumed in the U.S. is connected to bee pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Beekeepers are challenged with maintaining the health of hives working monoculture or single crop fields. “If we went out and ate one thing, all day long, we could not do that for long,” she said.
CCD kept 1,200 beekeepers and researchers buzzing at the National Beekeeping Conference 2008 organized by the American Beekeeping Federation and the American Honey Producers Association in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 9-12, Pettis said.
“Beekeepers are interested in nutrition now like they have never been before,” said Degrandi-Hoffman, who attended the event.
Tucson researchers developed a diet supplement called MagaBee that is a pollen substitute containing a complete mix of proteins, vitamins and minerals needed for bee colony growth and health, she said.
California field tests have been successful. “We know the diet will grow bees,” she said. “What we want to see is if it can reduce some of the impacts of some of the other stress factors that could lead to CCD.”
CCD is viewed as an ongoing threat.
“It’s not looking like a good year for honey bees, that much is clear,” said Pettis. “Will it be similar to or worse than last year? We don’t know.”
Information from beekeepers and studies of a limited number of hives offer evidence that CCD continues to wipe out hives.
“So far this winter I can’t tell what the losses will look like,” he said. “I’m not enthusiastic about the overall health of the U.S. bee population.”
Analysis of hives placed this month to pollinate fields will offer a better picture of CCD’s impact, Pettis said.
Degrandi-Hoffman said this winter’s cold could aid bees.
Last year’s warm winter saw bees flying in December, foraging rather than resting, she said.
When time came to work pollinating crops, the hives were stressed or exhausted, she said.
“I’m hoping for fewer cases of CCD because there is less of a weather stress factor this year,” she said.
Discovering and isolating a single cause for CCD has proven elusive and likely a combination of factors contributes to the disorder, Pettis said.
Israeli acute paralysis virus, identified by University of Arizona researchers as a factor in CCD, is still considered a likely candidate, Pettis said.
Other factors being investigated include pesticides, mites and digestive diseases, he said.
USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service is funding a new $4 million CCD study, and the Agriculture Research Service has offered about $4.5 million to study bee health, he said.
ON THE WEB
USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Colony Collapse Disorder Q and A site: www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572