Bees in Crisis
Penn State University
Penn State Staff
Researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences are at the forefront of solving a mysterious ailment affecting honey bees, and Penn State's role as the lead institution in studying the problem has drawn worldwide media attention.
A malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has decimated commercial and some hobby beekeeping operations across the country, with some beekeepers reporting losses as high as 100 percent. The disorder first was reported to the college's Department of Entomology in November 2006 by a migratory beekeeper from the Lewisburg area. Penn State Researchers and extension educators soon teamed with government agencies, other universities, and the bee industry in a CSI-style race to identify the causes and come up with solutions.
At stake is more than just honey; many important U.S. crops rely on pollination services provided by commercial beekeepers, including apples, almonds, peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. “For instance, Pennsylvania’s $45 million apple crop—the fourth largest in the country—is completely dependent on insects for pollination, and 90 percent of that pollination comes from honey bees,” says Maryann Frazier, a senior extension associate in entomology who specializes in apiculture. “So, the value of honey bee pollination to apples is about $40 million.” In total, honey bee pollination contributes about $65 million to the value of crops in the state.
Nationwide, honey bee pollination is worth about $15 billion to the food supply and is credited with helping to produce a third of the nation’s diet. “In addition to agricultural crops, honey bees also pollinate many native plants in the ecosystem,” Penn State entomologist Diana Cox-Foster told federal legislators at a March congressional hearing addressing the CCD problem.
Hives suffering from CCD exhibit several unique symptoms: The colony rapidly proceeds from a strong colony with many individuals to a colony with few or no surviving bees; queens are found with a few young adult bees, lots of brood (developing offspring), and more-than-adequate food reserves; and no dead adult bees are found in or near the colony. In other words, most of the bees simply disappear. Bees in affected colonies are infected with a high number of known disease organisms, but researchers have found little evidence of infestation by varroa and tracheal mites, two parasites that have contributed to significant colony losses over the last 20 years by weakening bees and spreading viral diseases.
An abundance of theories as to the cause—some credible, many far-fetched—have been suggested, ranging from radiation emitted by cell phone towers, to the use of genetically modified crops, to the coming of the apocalypse. However, a collection of scientists and bee experts known as the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, co-chaired by Cox-Foster, is exploring three possible hypotheses: 1) new or re-emerging pathogens, 2) environmental chemicals or pesticides that may negatively affect the bees’ behavior and/or physiology, and 3) a combination of factors—parasitic mites, diseases, and nutritional stress—that could be interacting to weaken bee colonies, opening the door for opportunistic pathogens such as fungi.
“A unique aspect of CCD is that there is a significant delay in robbing of the dead colony by bees from other colonies or invasion by pest insects such as waxworm moths or small hive beetles,” Cox-Foster testified at the hearing. “This suggests the presence of a deterrent chemical or toxin in the hive. Of particular note, we have found all adult bees in CCD colonies are infected with fungal pathogens. These findings may indicate that the bees are being immunosuppressed, but none of the organisms found in these bees can be attributed as the primary culprits.”
To alert beekeepers, the public, and growers who rely on honey bees to pollinate their crops, the College of Agricultural Sciences in late January issued a news release about CCD, which quickly captured the attention of the media and the public. Stories quoting Frazier, Cox-Foster, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Penn State–based acting state apiarist for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, soon appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and—thanks to the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies—in newspapers around the world. In addition, CNN, Fox News Channel, National Public Radio, the BBC, and numerous other radio and television outlets have aired stories featuring the Penn State experts.
While acknowledging that the attention has been somewhat overwhelming, Cox-Foster says the experience has been positive on several levels. “The media coverage has created a lot of awareness,” she says, “causing people to focus on the importance of agriculture and helping them to better understand agricultural systems—where their food comes from and how it’s produced. It also has led to additional sources of support as we continue researching this problem.”
The crisis has so captured the public’s imagination that students at an elementary school in Griffin, Ga., after learning about the bees’ plight, put on a play about honey bees to raise community awareness, with proceeds earmarked “to help with research for CCD to save the honey bees.” The college has established a special fund for individuals or beekeeping organizations that want to contribute to Penn State’s research effort on CCD.
Cox-Foster says the bee die-off and resulting news coverage also has spurred collaborations with other scientists across the country. For instance, Ian Lipkin and colleagues at Columbia University’s Northeast Biodefense Center are helping to identify the microbes and viruses associated with CCD colonies. Lipkin, who normally studies human diseases, has developed state-of-the-art technologies for pathogen surveillance and discovery that could be helpful in understanding Colony Collapse Disorder, according to Cox-Foster. “The more people we have thinking about it, the better the chances that we’ll find a solution,” she says.
Other Penn State faculty actively studying Colony Collapse Disorder include Nancy Ostiguy, associate professor of entomology, Chris Mullin, professor of entomology, David Geiser, associate professor of plant pathology, and Liwang Cui, associate professor of entomology. The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group also includes researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state departments of agriculture in Pennsylvania and Florida, North Carolina State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Delaware, Bee Alert Technology Inc. (a technology transfer company affiliated with the University of Montana), the University of Arizona, Columbia University, and others.