WASHINGTON - A record 36 percent of U.S. commercial bee colonies have been lost to mysterious causes so far this year and worse may be yet to come, experts told a congressional panel yesterday.
The year's bee colony losses are about twice what follows a typical winter, scientists warn. Despite ambitious new research efforts, the causes remain a mystery.
"We need results," pleaded Steve Godlin, a California beekeeper. "We need a unified effort by all."
The escalating campaign against what's generically called colony collapse disorder includes more state, federal and private funding for research. Publicity efforts are getting louder - a costumed Mr. Bee was seen wandering around Capitol Hill this week - and lawmakers are becoming mobilized.
Yesterday, Congress heard from farmers with troubled crops, from beekeepers struggling with lost hives, from frustrated researchers and even from corporate leaders worried about their own economic futures.
Colony collapse disorder is characterized by a sudden decline in a bee colony's population and the inexplicable absence of dead bees. First reported in 2006, the disorder was the chief cause for the 31 percent decline in bee colonies last year.
"What seemed to be an aberration has unfortunately turned into a full-fledged crisis," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, which convened the hearing.
The hearing is the second of its kind as part of a concerted strategy - elements of which have already borne fruit.
Notably, the five-year farm bill recently approved over President Bush's veto authorizes - but does not guarantee - $20 million in new funding for bee-related studies. Additional bee-related research can also be funded through other accounts, and the legislation requires an Agriculture Department report on the status of continuing pollinator research. This is the first farm bill to specifically mention the word "pollinator."
Private industry is also contributing. Haagen-Dazs, the Oakland, Calif.-based ice cream company, has recently pledged $250,000 for bee-related research at the University of California at Davis and Pennsylvania State University. This is self-interest in action, because 40 percent of the company's flavors - think Vanilla Swiss Almond or Cherry Vanilla - depend in some fashion on honeybees.
"Pollinators are an essential part of our business," said Katty Pien, a Haagen-Dazs brand manager.
Next month, the Agriculture Department expects to announce a new $4.1 million, four-year bee research project spanning multiple universities.
So far, Agricultural Research Service Administrator Edward Knipling told the House panel, scientists believe that "various stresses" - such as parasites, pathogens and pesticides - can build up in a bee colony and cause its demise. Some research has specifically identified a virus called the Israeli acute paralysis virus, which is closely associated with colony collapse.
Meanwhile, there isn't enough money to probe all the pollen and bee samples that researchers have collected, said Maryann Frazier, a Penn State University senior extension associate.