By Rachel Stern
Alan Wilson, a beekeeper who has been selling his honey at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market for the past 16 years, has lost 2,500 of his 2,700 bee colonies in the past 6 months.
“I’ve been a beekeeper for 60 years and have never had this bad a devastation,” said Wilson, of Wilson Farms in Le Grand, California, from behind his honey stand.
Wilson’s losses are part of a national trend of mysteriously disappearing honeybees. Since November, 25 states, including California, have reported a significant decline in their bee population — an event recently termed as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Since the onset of CCD, about one-quarter of the nation’s 2.3 million beehives have been lost.
Gene Robinson, director of the Robinson Laboratory, which is devoted to honey bee research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the loss of bees could have dramatic effects on the nation’s food supply.
“Even your hamburger or milkshake could be affected,” said Robinson, who explained that bees pollinate the alfalfa cows depend on.
Furthermore, he added, food prices would rise and many countries could experience a greater dependence on imports.
The potential factors behind the loss of bees, according to Robinson, are pathogens, parasites, nutrition and pesticides. Still, he said, “nothing is known for sure.”
“One of the key mysteries is that very few bees remain in the hives,” Robinson said. “No bodies have been found.”
Beginning in November, beekeepers opening their hives would find newborn bees and the Queen — but no workers.
Bees will travel up to two miles in search of food sources, but usually die near the hive. While there is usually a decline of bee populations in the winter, this year’s losses are five times greater than average.
In California alone, 85 commercial crops, including carrots, broccoli, and potatoes, require honeybees for pollination. Almond orchards in California, the world’s largest producer of almonds, would become barren without honeybees.
“Bees are by far the most important pollinators in the country,” Robinson said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), California almond trees provide almost three-quarters of the world’s almonds, producing more than one billion pounds a year. This year, almond growers across the state have had to order about one million colonies of honeybees.
Almond producers Stewart and Jasper Orchards in Newman, California have paid $10 to $30 more per beehive, according to farm manager Ray Henriques.
“As the shortage of bees continues, the price will continue to rise,” Henriques said.
California has the largest beekeeping industry of any state in the U.S. About one-fourth of the country’s documented honeybee production occurs in the state.
About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, according to the USDA. The honeybee is responsible for about 80 percent of the pollination, contributing about $15 billion to our national food supply.
In a recent congressional hearing on the disappearing bees, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said, “This crisis threatens to wipe out production of crops dependant on bees for pollination.”
Before the disorder struck, honeybees were steadily shrinking in numbers, particularly due to a shortage of disease-fighting genes. The Tracheal and Varroa mite have also been responsible for the past — and potentially present — loss of honeybees.
“There’s lots of theories out there,” Wilson said. “I’ll believe one when I can see the proof.”