Spring Mystery: Where Are All the Bees?

April 1, 2007 — -- It is a mystery causing heated debate in the world of beekeeping: What's wrong with the bees? Why are they suddenly and without warning leaving their colonies -- and disappearing almost overnight -- by the millions in the United States, Canada and Europe?

Nationwide, there are 2.4 million bee colonies that are used in agriculture to pollinate everything from almonds to fruits to flowering plants. Beekeepers estimate that 600,000, about 25 percent of the colonies, have been affected by the mysterious disappearance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 27 states from New York to California are now affected by the bee mystery.

On Capitol Hill this week, Congress heard from beekeepers, scientists and government officials.

Beekeepers complained that the basic science of what is happening to the bees isn't being done. Officials with the Department of Agriculture testified that they have collected samples of bees but they don't have the money to process them.

David Ellingson, a commercial beekeeper from Minnesota, called this year "catastrophic" and said money is needed immediately to research the mystery.

Beekeepers can only guess at the cause. Some blame an insecticide called Gaucho, because it has the effect of disorienting insects. Others say it's the effects of drought or a warmer than normal winter. And still other beekeepers say that keeping bees is a complex task and less-experienced keepers are making basic mistakes.

Joe Traynor, a bee broker in California's Central Valley who has kept bees for 40 years, said beekeepers must be precise if their colonies are going to survive.

"If you don't treat at the right time, if you don't supplemental feed … you're not going to have a strong colony," he said. "It's constant work. Before, you could just leave you bees. But if you're not at your bees every two or three days, your colony is going to suffer."

California almond growers may have the most to worry about. Pollination of California's vast almond groves is the main event of beekeeping nationwide. It takes about one million colonies of bees to pollinate the almond trees; in total that's about 30 billion bees -- many of them trucked in from across the country.

Paul Wenger of the California Farm Bureau testified that "bees are the unsung heroes of our state's important almond industry that has an annual farm value of more than $2.5 billion."

Wenger added that more than honey and almonds are at stake.

In California, bees pollinate "melons, cherries, avocados, Bartlett pears, bushberries, kiwi, many apple varieties, cucumbers, plums, prunes, pumpkin, squash, ornamental plants, and dozens of vegetable and flower seeds," said Wegner.

The biggest pain so far is being felt by beekeepers. Favorable weather and enough bees has groves throughout California now bursting with almonds.

Other growers have so far not reported major problems with getting their crops pollinated.

That said, beekeepers warn that diminishing bee colonies will affect the price of honey and eventually the price of produce.

Of course things could always get worse.

Albert Einstein, quoted in Germany's Der Spiegel, once said, "if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."