Seven years ago, we warned that this was happening in France: a particular pesticide called “Gaucho” was causing bees to fly away from their hives to forage, only to disappear. The speculation was that they were becoming disoriented and were unable to find their way back to the hive?something unheard of in these insects. This may be one reason for the disappearance of bees here in the US too, since the same pesticide is being sprayed on corn, and corn is displacing other crops in order to produce ethanol.

Scientists are working frantically to figure out what’s killing off our bees. Since 2006, the workers in many honey bee colonies in the United States have vanished due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition where adult worker bees abandon a seemingly healthy hive. This is a mysterious disappearance of honey bee colonies in the United States due to colony collapse disorder is a major concern for farmers, who rent thousands of hives from commercial bee operations to maintain fruit harvests worth over $100 million each year. Insect pathologist John Burand has received a three-year, $150,000 grant from the USDA for research aimed at improving the health of honey bees and bumble bees, which are the main pollinators of blueberries and cranberries and important pollinators of apples, squash and pumpkins. He says, “?The working hypothesis is that a number of factors are stressing bees, including diseases, parasites and pesticide use.”

Burand will analyze bees donated by local and commercial beekeepers to determine the types of microbes they carry. He says, “One wild hive of honey bees in good health will also be sampled.” Genetic material from the samples will be sequenced in a laboratory to identify which microbes are present in each colony, including bacteria, fungi and a host of bee viruses, and how many of each type are present. The microbes from thriving bee colonies will be compared to colonies that are not doing as well, which may lead to the development of a microbial indicator test for bee colony health. “Some of these microbes cause disease in bees, but others are considered beneficial, and to make things more complicated, disease organisms are usually present in perfectly healthy hives,” says Burand. “We may find that a balance between harmful and beneficial microbes is necessary to keep diseases in check and maintain a healthy hive, and that environmental factors like pesticide use are altering this balance.” Beekeepers will also be surveyed about the kinds of treatments used in their hives, including antibiotics and fungicides. Let?s hope he finds some answers before the unthinkable happens: a food shortage right here in the US!

If you click the links below, note that “maize” is the British word for “corn.”

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