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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  April 2007

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE April 2007

Subject:

Send again, without format codes: Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons - New York Times

From:

Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 24 Apr 2007 12:42:23 -0400

Content-Type:

multipart/mixed

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text/plain (287 lines) , 933cb0.jpg (287 lines) , Unknown Name (2 lines)


http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/24/science/24bees.html?8dpc=&pagewanted=all



April 24, 2007


Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons

By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO

[]

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

MYSTERY Honeybee colonies around the nation are 
collapsing. Above, a beekeeper in Loxahatchee, Fla.

BELTSVILLE, Md., April 23  What is happening to the bees?

More than a quarter of the country's 2.4 million 
bee colonies have been lost  tens of billions of 
bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary 
Inspectors of America, a national group that 
tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is 
causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

As with any great mystery, a number of theories 
have been posed, and many seem to researchers to 
be more science fiction than science. People have 
blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone 
towers and high-voltage transmission lines for 
the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by 
Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American 
agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the 
rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them 
to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.

The volume of theories "is totally 
mind-boggling," said Diana Cox-Foster, an 
entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. 
With Jeffrey S. Pettis, an entomologist from the 
United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. 
Cox-Foster is leading a team of researchers who 
are trying to find answers to explain "colony 
collapse disorder," the name given for the disappearing bee syndrome.

"Clearly there is an urgency to solve this," Dr. 
Cox-Foster said. "We are trying to move as quickly as we can."

Dr. Cox-Foster and fellow scientists who are here 
at a two-day meeting to discuss early findings 
and future plans with government officials have 
been focusing on the most likely suspects: a virus, a fungus or a pesticide.

About 60 researchers from North America sifted 
the possibilities at the meeting today. Some 
expressed concern about the speed at which adult 
bees are disappearing from their hives; some 
colonies have collapsed in as little as two days. 
Others noted that countries in Europe, as well as 
Guatemala and parts of Brazil, are also struggling for answers.

"There are losses around the world that may or 
not be linked," Dr. Pettis said.

The investigation is now entering a critical 
phase. The researchers have collected samples in 
several states and have begun doing bee autopsies and genetic analysis.

So far, known enemies of the bee world, like the 
varroa mite, on their own at least, do not appear 
to be responsible for the unusually high losses.

Genetic testing at Columbia University has 
revealed the presence of multiple micro-organisms 
in bees from hives or colonies that are in 
decline, suggesting that something is weakening 
their immune system. The researchers have found 
some fungi in the affected bees that are found in 
humans whose immune systems have been suppressed 
by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or cancer.

"That is extremely unusual," Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Meanwhile, samples were sent to an Agriculture 
Department laboratory in North Carolina this 
month to screen for 117 chemicals. Particular 
suspicion falls on a pesticide that France banned 
out of concern that it may have been decimating 
bee colonies. Concern has also mounted among public officials.

"There are so many of our crops that require 
pollinators," said Representative Dennis Cardoza, 
a California Democrat whose district includes 
that state's central agricultural valley, and who 
presided last month at a Congressional hearing on 
the bee issue. "We need an urgent call to arms to 
try to ascertain what is really going on here 
with the bees, and bring as much science as we 
possibly can to bear on the problem."

So far, colony collapse disorder has been found 
in 27 states, according to Bee Alert Technology 
Inc., a company monitoring the problem. A recent 
survey of 13 states by the Apiary Inspectors of 
America showed that 26 percent of beekeepers had 
lost half of their bee colonies between September and March.

Honeybees are arguably the insects that are most 
important to the human food chain. They are the 
principal pollinators of hundreds of fruits, 
vegetables, flowers and nuts. The number of bee 
colonies has been declining since the 1940s, even 
as the crops that rely on them, such as 
California almonds, have grown. In October, at 
about the time that beekeepers were experiencing 
huge bee losses, a study by the National Academy 
of Sciences questioned whether American 
agriculture was relying too heavily on one type of pollinator, the honeybee.

Bee colonies have been under stress in recent 
years as more beekeepers have resorted to 
crisscrossing the country with 18-wheel trucks 
full of bees in search of pollination work. These 
bees may suffer from a diet that includes 
artificial supplements, concoctions akin to 
energy drinks and power bars. In several states, 
suburban sprawl has limited the bees' natural forage areas.

So far, the researchers have discounted the 
possibility that poor diet alone could be 
responsible for the widespread losses. They have 
also set aside for now the possibility that the 
cause could be bees feeding from a commonly used 
genetically modified crop, Bt corn, because the 
symptoms typically associated with toxins, such 
as blood poisoning, are not showing up in the 
affected bees. But researchers emphasized today 
that feeding supplements produced from 
genetically modified crops, such as high-fructose 
corn syrup, need to be studied.

The scientists say that definitive answers for 
the colony collapses could be months away. But 
recent advances in biology and genetic sequencing are speeding the search.

Computers can decipher information from DNA and 
match pieces of genetic code with particular 
organisms. Luckily, a project to sequence some 
11,000 genes of the honeybee was completed late 
last year at Baylor University, giving scientists 
a huge head start on identifying any unknown pathogens in the bee tissue.

"Otherwise, we would be looking for the needle in 
the haystack," Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Large bee losses are not unheard of. They have 
been reported at several points in the past 
century. But researchers think they are dealing 
with something new  or at least with something previously unidentified.

"There could be a number of factors that are 
weakening the bees or speeding up things that 
shorten their lives," said Dr. W. Steve Sheppard, 
a professor of entomology at Washington State 
University. "The answer may already be with us."

Scientists first learned of the bee 
disappearances in November, when David 
Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, told Dr. 
Cox-Foster that more than 50 percent of his bee 
colonies had collapsed in Florida, where he had taken them for the winter.

Dr. Cox-Foster, a 20-year veteran of studying 
bees, soon teamed with Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the 
Pennsylvania apiary inspector, to look into the losses.

In December, she approached W. Ian Lipkin, 
director of the Greene Infectious Disease 
Laboratory at Columbia University, about doing 
genetic sequencing of tissue from bees in the 
colonies that experienced losses. The laboratory 
uses a recently developed technique for reading 
and amplifying short sequences of DNA that has 
revolutionized the science. Dr. Lipkin, who 
typically works on human diseases, agreed to do 
the analysis, despite not knowing who would 
ultimately pay for it. His laboratory is known 
for its work in finding the West Nile disease in the United States.

Dr. Cox-Foster ultimately sent samples of bee 
tissue to researchers at Columbia, to the 
Agriculture Department laboratory in Maryland, 
and to Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the 
University of Illinois. Fortuitously, she had 
frozen bee samples from healthy colonies dating to 2004 to use for comparison.

After receiving the first bee samples from Dr. 
Cox-Foster on March 6, Dr. Lipkin's team 
amplified the genetic material and started 
sequencing to separate virus, fungus and parasite DNA from bee DNA.

"This is like C.S.I. for agriculture," Dr. Lipkin 
said. "It is painstaking, gumshoe detective work."

Dr. Lipkin sent his first set of results to Dr. 
Cox-Foster, showing that several unknown 
micro-organisms were present in the bees from 
collapsing colonies. Meanwhile, Mr. vanEngelsdorp 
and researchers at the Agriculture Department lab 
here began an autopsy of bees from collapsing 
colonies in California, Florida, Georgia and 
Pennsylvania to search for any known bee pathogens.

At the University of Illinois, using knowledge 
gained from the sequencing of the bee genome, Dr. 
Robinson's team will try to find which genes in 
the collapsing colonies are particularly active, 
perhaps indicating stress from exposure to a toxin or pathogen.

The national research team also quietly began a 
parallel study in January, financed in part by 
the National Honey Board, to further determine if 
something pathogenic could be causing colonies to collapse.

Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his 
empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food 
Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., 
that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical 
equipment and some fruits. In early results, the 
irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return 
to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.

"This supports the idea that there is a pathogen 
there," Dr. Cox-Foster said. "It would be hard to 
explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical."

Still, some environmental substances remain suspicious.

Chris Mullin, a Pennsylvania State University 
professor and insect toxicologist, recently sent 
a set of samples to a federal laboratory in 
Raleigh, N.C., that will screen for 117 
chemicals. Of greatest interest are the 
"systemic" chemicals that are able to pass 
through a plant's circulatory system and move to 
the new leaves or the flowers, where they would come in contact with bees.

One such group of compounds is called 
neonicotinoids, commonly used pesticides that are 
used to treat corn and other seeds against pests. 
One of the neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, is 
commonly used in Europe and the United States to 
treat seeds, to protect residential foundations 
against termites and to help keep golf courses and home lawns green.

In the late 1990s, French beekeepers reported 
large losses of their bees and complained about 
the use of imidacloprid, sold under the brand 
name Gaucho. The chemical, while not killing the 
bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented 
and stay away from their hives, leading them to 
die of exposure to the cold, French researchers 
later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome "mad bee disease."

The French government banned the pesticide in 
1999 for use on sunflowers, and later for corn, 
despite protests by the German chemical giant 
Bayer, which has said its internal research 
showed the pesticide was not toxic to bees. 
Subsequent studies by independent French 
researchers have disagreed with Bayer. Alison 
Chalmers, an eco-toxicologist for Bayer 
CropScience, said at the meeting today that bee 
colonies had not recovered in France as 
beekeepers had expected. "These chemicals are not 
being used anymore," she said of imidacloprid, 
"so they certainly were not the only cause."

Among the pesticides being tested in the American 
bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group "is 
the number-one suspect," Dr. Mullin said. He 
hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month.



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