Honeybees in Virginia are disappearing at an alarming rate.
According to Target Health, Inc. approximately 90 percent of the wild bee population in North America has died out and percentages are close to that in European bee colonies. The disappearance of honeybees has been largely attributed to a syndrome called colony collapse disorder, which is characterized by the disappearance of worker bees from a hive. Since 2004, beekeepers throughout North America have been reporting the disappearance of entire colonies while leaving behind their brood (immature bees). Bees normally do not abandon a hive until the brood has all hatched. In many hives, there are an insufficient number of worker bees to maintain the brood.
The cause or causes of the syndrome is not yet fully understood, however, many beekeepers and entomologists attribute the problem to factors such as disease, parasites, environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Many researchers believe a virus called Israel Acute Paralysis Virus, which causes acute paralysis of bees, is a strong possible culprit in colony collapse disorder. A fungus known as Nosema apis is also a possibility. This parasite interferes with the digestion of pollen, which honeybees collect and bring to the hive.Several pathogens (diseases), such as Isarael Acute Paralysis virus and parasites, such as Nosema apis, were introduced into the Unites States by infected honeybees, honey or bees wax from Asia and other areas. Pesticide usage is also considered a cause, with nicotine-based pesticides believed to be a probable contributing factor.
Some researchers, such as Jeff Pettis of the USDA Maryland Honeybee Research Lab, believe there are multiple factors involved in colony collapse and that researchers need to look at all combinations such as viruses, parasites, stress and nutrition.
Honeybees are the keystone to successful agriculture. Many insects can pollinate, but honeybees visit flowers multiple times, which ensures complete and efficient pollination. Also, honeybee nests can be relocated without disrupting the bee's life cycle. A grower can have the best location for growing a crop, but without honeybees taking pollen from point A to point B there will be no marketable crop. Albert Einstein once said, "If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years."
More research is needed to assess the factors contributing to the disappearance of the honeybee. To learn more about honey bees and their wonderful capabilities, visit the bee exhibit at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.
Robin Delk is a science educator at the Virginia Living Museum. Visit the museum online at www.thevlm.org.