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Mystery Ailment Devastates Honeybee Industry

Monday, February 12, 2007

The mysterious death of commercial honeybee colonies is baffling scientists and now farmers who count on bees to pollinate their crops are crossing their fingers as the trees prepare to bloom.

Honeybee Genetics, in Vacaville, which breeds the most durable Russian queens, says 20 percent of their hives aren't doing well.

Tom Parisian, Honeybee Genetics: "Some bee keepers are almost wiped out."

From 15,000 bees, to 1,500. It's called "colony collapse disorder." Honeybee Genetics owner Tom Parisian says it all happens in the winter months.

Tom Parisian, Honeybee Genetics: "We'll see bees that are crawling around and they look like they're ill. They're crawling around, they'll crawl out the hive and they just crawl away and die."

And this is a crucial time because farmers are counting on these bees to pollinate the state's largest crop. It's worth 1.4 billion dollars. This month, farmers will need to rent out thousands of hives to pollinate their almonds, or amonds as they're called in the industry.

But scientist aren't sure what's wiping out the bees. It could be a fungus, pesticides, or possibly mites.

Tom Parisian, Honeybee Genetics: "They sometimes carry with them diseases, especially viral diseases, that affect the bees and debilitate them."

Eric Mussen, UC Davis Entomologist: "Each day we eat about one third of our food pollinated by honey bees."

UC Davis entomologist Eric Mussen specializes in bees. He thinks the answer lies in last summer's lack of wild flowers, nationwide.

Eric Mussen, UC Davis Entomologist: "That pollen is digested by the bees, the nutrients go into the head of the bees and they can make a brood food out of it that comes out of the glands in their heads, and if they aren't eating the right pollens or if they don't have enough of it, they aren't getting the nutrients to pass along to the baby bees for the next generation."

It's estimated that 40 percent of commercial colonies are lost. Now most of the survivors are being shipped to California from around the country. The fear is that many colonies will be dead when they get here.

Tom Parisian, Honeybee Genetics: "And the farmer who was counting on them being there to produce a crop has no other choices at that point. There's no other bees available, but we don't know that yet. We don't know that. We'll know that in two weeks."

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