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Have Military Scientists Solved the Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder Mystery?

Have Military Scientists Solved the Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder Mystery?

Bee Disappearance Has Baffled Experts

For several years, honeybee colony collapse disorder (CCD) — a mysterious malady that destroys honeybee hives, causing worker bees to abandon their home and die alone — has alarmed beekeepers and farmers and baffled scientists.

Since 2006, up to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States have succumbed to the disorder. Last winter alone, more than one-third of domesticated honeybees kept by beekeepers died.

As key pollinators, honeybees are an integral part of their ecosystem. More than one third of food crops in the United States depend on honeybee pollination for successful production, so a threat to bees is also a serious threat to the human food supply.

Viruses, fungi, parasites, pesticides, and even mobile phone signals have all been tested by scientists in the search for the culprit behind CCD. But until recently, no studies seemed to point to a single definitive cause.

Military and Civilian Partnership Leads Scientists to Possible CCD Cause

As it turns out, there may well not be a single cause of CCD. A study published this week in the journal of the Public Library of Science points to two pathogens, working in concert: a bee virus called invertebrate iridescent virus, or IIV, and a fungus called Nosema.

U.S. military microbiologists who specialize in protein analysis teamed up with civilian entymologists who specialize in the study of bees to uncover the connection. (Check The New York Times for the interesting story of how this military-civilian partnership was formed.)

By carefully analyzing the remains of dead bees from CCD-affected hives, the scientists were able to identify several different types of viruses, mites and fungi infecting affected bees. And they discovered that in nearly every CCD-affected hive, both the IIV virus and the Nosema fungus were present.

By itself, neither pathogen seems to cause full-blown CCD, but according to this study, in combination, the two illnesses are nearly always present together in hives destroyed by CCD.

More Research Still Needed to Find a CCD Cure

Despite the promising results from this CCD study, several issues surrounding CCD remain unclear. The study’s scientists are not certain whether the virus makes the bees more susceptible to fungal attacks, or vice versa. And it is not known why bees have become so much more affected by these illnesses over the past several years.

Could there be another environmental factor making the bees’ immune systems less capable of fighting off disease? One of the study scientists, Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana, has taken care not to rule out that possibility, saying, “We truly don’t know if these two pathogens cause CCD or whether the colonies with CCD are more likely to succumb to these two pathogens.”

How You Can Help Honeybees Right Now

While the scientific world waits for further research on how to prevent honeybee colony collapse disorder, there are a few common-sense things that you can do right now to help support struggling honeybee populations.

Loss of plant biodiversity has caused bees to rely on a less varied, less nutritious diet. Concerned gardeners can help by growing plants that provide food for bees, such as hyssop, asters, and lemon balm.

Honeybees are also highly susceptible to the same pesticides that are often used by homeowners to kill carpenter bees and wasps. If you want to protect honeybees from pesticide stress, check labels carefully and avoid the use of pesticides that harm bees whenever possible — try to find alternative, organic ways of dealing with insect pests.

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Image: Detail of honeybee photo from USDA. Public domain.

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230 comments

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8:12AM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

In 2011, it was suggested that "clothianidin, a synthetic, nicotine-based insecticide" might be responsible. In 2012, it was reported that since "seed coating with neonicotinoid insecticides was introduced in the late 1990s, European beekeepers have reported severe colony losses in the period of corn sowing (spring)..."

Maybe nicotine-based seed-coating insecticides kill the bees directly, and the fungal / viral theories are not relevant. Maybe the fungi and viruses have been there all along, and are not relevant to the massive die-offs associated with CCD.

4:47AM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

The environment is part of "the commons", because it's what we have in common. It belongs to all of us. Cynical about the role of the government? Cynical about the role of businesses? Should we privatize everything? No. Should we regulate everything? Neither. Check out Peter Barnes's book "Capitalism 3.0", for solutions to the political and environmental dilemmas we are facing today. The book can be downloaded free. http://capitalism3.com/home

4:41AM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

The current economic system is based on scarcity. It encourages greed.

4:35AM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

The current economic system is based on scarcity. It encourages greed.

7:05AM PST on Jan 22, 2011

What a mess we've made of this world!! That's what comes of thinking we own it!!

11:33AM PST on Nov 9, 2010

Bees are very important creatures. I can only hope that we realize that really soon!

11:09AM PDT on Nov 2, 2010

Environment and lack of decent is the blame

7:11AM PDT on Oct 27, 2010

I recently saw a documentary about Bees. I just hadn't stopped to think about how important these creatures are. Truly have great respect for them now. Fascinating!

6:42PM PDT on Oct 24, 2010

I really hope these study results will achieve something worthwhile, so that this can be eradicated. But, let's suppose that chemicals in the environment, like insecticides, herbicides, pesticides are to blame. How much will the manufacturers of those products fight to keep their products on the shelf? We already know that they are far more interested in profits than they are in the environment, even if it means killing the planet - and us. Greed and myopia are deadly.

2:39AM PDT on Oct 21, 2010

Thanks, great article

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