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Bees are shown on a honeycomb at Big Sky Honey in Bakersfield, Calif., where an ailment affecting bees appears to have expanded.

Photos by Jim Wilson • New York Times ,

Bill Dahle, owner of Big Sky Honey, said, “We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

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Soaring honeybee deaths sound alarm on malady

  • Article by: MICHAEL WINES
  • New York Times
  • March 30, 2013 - 5:19 PM

 

– A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be a factor.

The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.

“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts to the San Joaquin Valley for discussions.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is to issue its assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”

Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly in autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Annual bee losses of 5-10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. Now, the losses approached one-third of all bees despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure the insects’ health.

The effect is not limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the U.S. diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices. Bee shortages pushed the cost to farmers of renting bees to $200 per hive at times, 20 percent above normal. That, too, might translate into higher food prices.

Precisely why last year’s deaths were so great is unclear. Some blame drought, although Dahle lost nearly 80 percent of his bees despite excellent summer conditions. Others cite bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides. Still others blame viruses. But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used to control pests.

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