Researchers Ponder Crisis of Honey Bee Decline

July 30th, 2010
By Chris Torres, Lancaster Farming

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bees are in trouble. Serious trouble. But solving their plight may be as complicated as figuring out why they are dying off.

Penn State held the first International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health, and Policy this week.

The conference ran from last Saturday to Wednesday and featured dozens of experts and speakers from around the world.

Experts from as far away as Brazil, Israel and Kenya gave their take on the decline of pollinating bees and other pollinators, and the impact it is having on crop production around the world.

Representatives from several government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA talked about the federal government’s response to pollinator decline, in particular Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which was first discovered by a commercial beekeeper in Pennsylvania in 2006.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Jeff Pettis, leader of bee research at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), said the impact of CCD has not waned since the term was coined four years ago.

It is a big reason why honeybees, in particular, are in decline. But he added it’s not the only reason.

“CCD is one of many things that affect honeybees. It is unsustainable,” Pettis said.

A survey two years ago, he said, showed a 29 percent decline in the number of managed commercial bee hives as a result of CCD and other factors.

This past winter, another 34 percent of commercial bee colonies was lost.

Penn State, which has been one of the lead universities researching CCD, has been unable to come up with a definitive answer for what is causing the ailment.

Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology at Penn State, said at the press conference that the current consensus is that CCD comprises multiple factors, including deadly parasites, viruses and pressures from pesticide use.

“CCD is not the only cause of bee die-offs. It is a complicated issue,” Cox-Foster said.

When it comes to the ag community’s role in figuring out ways to solve the bee crisis, Tom Van Arsdall of the Pollinator Partnership, said the challenge will be balancing farmers’ needs with the need to adapt better conservation methods.

“When it comes to production ag, their job is making sure they do enough on the land to make a living,” Van Arsdall said.

Meetings with representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation, he said, have been productive but also contentious.

He said farm bureau leaders are worried that farmers will lose crop protection tools they have been using for years to accommodate bees and other insects.

“You have to respect their concerns and understand that and connect with them,” he said. “Everybody has a stake in it. The question is, how do you find a solution.”

Mace Vaughn, pollinator program director at the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, said some farmers, including ones the society has worked with, welcome better conservation measures.

“They see it as part of their overall conservation aspect of the farm. Farmers see this as part of the wildlife habitat on the farm,” Vaughn said.

A panel of researchers, experts and government officials took part in a session Monday morning on “Evolving Policies on Pollinator Risk Assessment and Conservation.”

The session, held at the Nittany Lion Inn in State College, was broadcast over the Internet.

In England, the value of pollinators is estimated at $750 million or 10 percent of the total value of agriculture, according to Stuart Roberts, research fellow at the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at Reading University.

Replacing these pollinators, he said, could cost billions of dollars.

Many projects in Europe are focused on conservation efforts, and 27,000 sites throughout Europe are now protected and being used as habitat areas for pollinators.

But Roberts calls pollinator conservation a multisector and multiscale challenge.

Doug Holy, national invasive species specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), said the agency has been looking at alternatives to honeybees, including solitary bees and wild bees.

The agency has also been looking at expanding economic incentives for pollinator conservation. The conservation title of the 2008 Farm Bill, he said, encourages pollinator habitat and development.

Some research, Holy said, has gone into developing pollinator seed mixes depending on the region where a particular crop is being grown. There are also some demonstration gardens in development.

Thomas Moriarty, team leader in the pesticide re-evaluation division at the EPA, said the agency is working with states to develop better reporting mechanisms that beekeepers can use to report mass bee die-offs.

The agency is also encouraging pesticide manufacturers to label products better, and it is reviewing neonicotinoids, compounds that affect the central nervous system and have been suspected as a cause of CCD.

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