AWOL Bees Put Pollination at Risk

Where have all the bees gone? Over the past week, The New York Times has run three articles about the growing problem of colony collapse disorder. The first piece (requires registration) detailed how honeybees across the country “have been disappearing inexplicably at an alarming rate” since the fall of 2006. Even the snarkers at Gawker are stumped (although, true to form, their tender concern for the little critters is linked under “Those f*king bees are still missing! WTF, yo?”).

Unlike recent waves of honeybee destruction caused by varroa mites and other parasites, the current problem is mostly lacking in clues. Says baffled California apiarist David Bradshaw, who has lost half of his 100 million bees, “Box after box after box are just empty. There’s nobody home.”

As entomologist May R. Berenbaum (author of Buzzwords: A Scientist Muses on Sex, Bugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll) points out in her Op-Ed, the big deal with bees isn’t the sweet stuff they make for your tea and toast. It’s the $14 billion-a-year job they do pollinating the food crops of America. From the alfalfa and clover fed to sheep and cattle to the almonds in your Hershey bar, more than a third of the American diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, on foods pollinated by honeybees.

A colony collapse disorder study group, including researchers from Penn State, the USDA, and the Florida Department of Agriculture, is pointing the finger at a new class of pesticides known as neonicotinioids, which may be affecting the bees’ highly developed memory and tracking centers and preventing them from finding their way back to their hives.