Scientists say its time to act now to ward off a pollination crisis

January 27, 2008
Madolyn Rogers
Sentinel Correspondent

At the 28th annual Ecological Farming Conference in Monterey Thursday, scientists discussed the possible causes of the steep loss of honeybee colonies nationwide in 2007, and said now is the time to take action to ward off a pollination crisis.

Entomologist Eric Mussen of UC Davis said the phenomenon, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007, is not new. Similar losses occurred in the winter of 2005 and also in 1963-1965. In every case, adult bees abandoned the nests, leaving their queen behind.

The cause of these periodic collapses is still not certain, Mussen said, but he believes it’s due to a combination of malnutrition and disease. Honeybees are dependent upon a mix of pollens from a variety of plants for their nutrients, Mussen said. A combination of drought in some areas and excessive rain in others in 2007 led to less flower availability and poor nutrition for the bees. In addition, Mussen said, honeybee colonies have been in poor health since the late 1980s when a mite infestation spread through hives nationwide, making colonies vulnerable to new stressors.

Scientists are still investigating the possibility that pesticides played a role in the colony collapse, but so far there is no conclusive evidence for that, Mussen said. However, researchers have ruled out the theory that electromagnetic radiation from cell phones played any role.

Mussen and fellow presenter Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation agreed that Colony Collapse Disorder has not created a pollination crisis yet. Enough colonies are still available to meet the yearly agricultural demand, Mussen said, but if the losses of 2007 continue for several years, beekeepers may be driven out of business.

“Then there will be a terrible pollination crisis,” Mussen said.

So far this year, it appears colony losses have not been as heavy as in 2007, Mussen said. He ascribed this to the fact that many beekeepers are feeding their honeybees high amounts of pollen substitute, improving their nutrition.

To lessen the dependence of agriculture on the honeybee population, Vaughan recommended increasing the populations of native bee species such as bumblebees and mining bees. Farmers can encourage native bees by providing nesting sites and year-round flowers, Vaughan said. He recommended leaving soil untilled, providing bee blocks, which are tunnels drilled into wood, allowing crops to flower and minimizing pesticide use.

“I think there’s great potential to bring these bees back with managed landscapes, but we really need to act and act now,” Vaughan said.

Contact Madolyn Rogers at 706-3286 or