Honeybees Dying: Scientists Wonder Why, and Worry About Food Supply

A third of America's food depends on them; 'We're cutting it really close."

ByABC News
March 24, 2010, 1:57 PM

March 25, 2010— -- No matter where you live -- in a brick Philadelphia row house, the sprawling suburbs of Dallas or an apartment in Seattle -- you depend, more than most of us know, on honeybees raised in California or Florida.

The bees have been dying in unusually large numbers, and scientists are trying to figure out why.

"One in every three bites of food you eat comes from a plant, or depends on a plant, that was pollinated by an insect, most likely a bee," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp of Penn State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We're still managing to pollinate all the orchards," he said. "But we're really cutting it close out there."

It has been going on for four years. In 2009 almost 29 percent of the bee colonies in the United States collapsed, say scientists who surveyed commercial beekeepers and brokers. That's slightly less than the 36 percent loss in 2008 and the 32 percent counted in 2007, but an informal survey just finished suggests that the die-off continues.

"Something is wrong out there," said David Mendes, a commercial beekeeper near Fort Myers, Fla., who is also president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "It may be something in the agricultural environment that's making them sicker and more vulnerable to illness.

"It didn't used to be like this," he said. "I'm managing to hold my numbers, but it's hard."

In spring, as the weather warms, Mendes usually trucks the bees he's raised from Florida to Maine to pollinate plants for blueberry farmers, and then to Massachusetts to start the cranberry season. Instead, he's spending a lot of his time trying to raise more bees to make up for the ones he's lost. The numbers bounce back, but it's a lot of work.

"And it's not without cost," he said.

He said he has been buying commercial nutrients to keep his stock healthy -- an expense he has to pass on to the farmers who hire him to help pollinate their crops. Almonds and apples, soybeans and strawberries -- as well as animals that feed on pollinated crops -- may all be a bit more expensive this year because of a shortage of bees to pollinate the trees or vines.