“Bees aren’t like people—if you threw one of us in a box and took us to new home, we’d be mad,” says UM beekeeper Scott Debnam, in street clothes above. “The bees just fly around a little and get right to work.”
Behind a thin veil of mesh wire, stalactites of clustered honeybees collapse into gelatinous clumps as their 350 cubic inch world is rocked by outside forces.
Beyond the cramped confines of wire and plywood, a transfer is underway. Dick Molenda, owner-operator of Polson-based honeybee distributor Western Bee, barehands four or five colony-sized cubicles at a time and indelicately hauls them from a horse trailer onto a patch of lawn adjacent to
the University of Montana’s Fort Missoula apiary.
The bees, very near the end of their 1,000-mile odyssey from inland California, take the jostling with no injury. At 8:39 a.m. the cool Rocky Mountain air makes the bees fairly inactive and they join together in a sullen, relaxed hum—a chorus roughly 2 million strong.
“I’ve been keeping ’em cool back here because I knew there’d be a lot of people around,” Molenda says.
A crowd of local beekeepers, composed mostly of hobbyists, assembles around the buzzing colonies as Molenda sifts through invoices looking to match up orders. Fifty-five of the 144 boxes—each containing 15,000 bees—will go to replenish decimated populations at the UM apiary. The other 89 are bound for nearby farmyards, where locals will use the colonies to supply their own honey or pollinate crops. For both researcher and agriculturalist, the delivery has been long awaited.
“Like us, they’ve lost most of their bees and are restocking,” University of Montana entomologist Jerry Bromenshenk explains.
Ninety percent, to be exact, marks the colony loss rate at the UM apiary last year—a more-than-seven-fold increase over past annual averages. The cause is a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which started appearing in American domesticated bee populations in 2006. Colonies infected with CCD vanish without apparent rhyme or reason, typically leaving nothing more than a handful of honeybees around a queen—sometimes nothing at all. It’s a major problem considering honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of United States seeds and crops each year, which accounts for about one-third of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, according to a Cornell University study.
Eight hives in the UM apiary succumbed to CCD last summer. Most of the remaining colonies, university beekeepers say, followed suit by year’s end.
“A bee will fly if the air temperature is more than 45 degrees. If they’re infected, they simply won’t return to the hive,” says UM beekeeper Scott Debnam. “Unfortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing the signs. It’s a hundred little things… like too many bees leaving the hive during the day—things only a beekeeper would notice.”
But simply noticing, Debnam adds, does little good. “There’s no warning,” he responds when asked if experts can forecast a CCD outbreak, or even a rough season. “One day you go out and half the bees are gone from a box. Soon after they’ll all be gone.”
The malady has proven so bizarre that, after two years of exhaustive inquiry, researchers still can’t pin down a cause. Many, like Bromenshenk, a pioneer in the adolescent field of CCD research (see “Bee-fuddling,” March 8, 2007), believe numerous culprits exist within the mass of suspects. Parasitic mites, pathogenic microsporidia (small fungus), global climate change, malnutrition, pesticides, toxins put off by genetically modified crops, and viral infections top an epic list.
The breakthrough remains undiscovered, but Bromenshenk says scientists have made “incremental progress.” Last year, a bit of information trickled out of the Iberian Peninsula that has many leading CCD experts thinking the microsporidium Nosema ceranae is at least partly to blame for the phenomenon. In Spain, the micro-fungus has been previously linked to a rare but documented
affliction known to cause CCD-like symptoms in Asiatic bee species. “I don’t know why it wasn’t reported to the beekeeping community,” Bromenshenk says.
Eventually, disclosure of this information became a matter of self-interest. As the effect of the disease spreads to new markets, more and more apiologists (entomologists specializing in bees) worldwide are getting in on the CCD conundrum. Most recently, the phenomenon has made headlines in the United Kingdom as British beekeepers last month appealed to government scientists to find a cure. Worldwide, the accounts of disappearances are piling up so quickly that misdiagnosed reports are clouding the data pool.
“Are we looking at the same thing or not?” ponders Bromenshenk, who will journey to Uruguay later this week to inspect one such suspected outbreak. “Part of the problem is we can only track symptoms.” A set of symptoms, he says, could be linked to multiple conditions.
Many of the honeybees recently delivered to the UM apiary will take part in an experiment to get a better handle on the CCD mystery. Bromenshenk hopes to infect several colonies by placing them in untreated boxes that harbored disease-stricken hives last year. The other bees will be placed in boxes that have been sterilized at 122 degrees, a temperature proven to kill the microsporidium suspected to contribute to CCD outbreaks.
The experiment is part of a collaborative effort by Montana researchers—including Robert Cramer of Montana State University and Missoula-based private researcher Dave Wick—to winnow down a laundry list of plausible causes. “We’re going to see if we can get some new tools in the toolkit,” Bromenshenk says.
Wick’s idea requires a bit more than what’s sitting in the apiary’s supply shed. He wants to use military scanning equipment—previously employed to guard American troops from bio-warfare attacks—to discover viruses in the remains of bees killed by CCD.
The process of discovering a viral pathogen, Wick says, involves blending up the bee-matter and putting the slurry in a centrifuge to separate out the exoskeletal chunks. What remains is hit with an electrical charge, which causes the viruses to move, allowing researchers to examine them with the specialized military equipment. “We’re looking for physical properties of the viruses,” Wick says. “We then analyze the viruses and separate them according to size…Some are much smaller than others.”
To aid the progress of endeavors like these, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., recently pushed to get a $20 million appropriation in the most recent congressional draft of the Farm Bill (see sidebar, “Beltway buzz”). The way negotiations over the bill have been going, bee researchers will be lucky to receive such a funding promise in the final draft. Either way, the local scientists aren’t anticipating any sudden windfall.
“They say, ‘There, you have $50 to go buy gas,’ but then you go to the pump and where’s the $50?” Wick skeptically replies when asked about the possibility of seeing the appropriation yield new funding.
Despite the unresolved status of the CCD mystery, backyard beekeeping continues to gain in popularity. Molenda of Western Bee says he’s definitely seen an increase in activity statewide, driven largely by higher sugar prices. In terms of bracing against the CCD tide, at $75 dollars per colony, the expense of replacing eradicated hives is hardly backbreaking for the local hobbyist.
However, commercial beekeepers—defined as owning 1,000 or more hives—face a much different reality. Some have reported going six figures into the red in recent seasons, simply due to the need to restock their CCD-rampaged yards. Those that use their colonies to produce honey are also running up against a more inexpensive supply from Chinese producers, whose importers allegedly use border shenanigans to avoid tariffs. “The beekeeper is a guy that now has to deal in a world market,” Molenda says.
Among Montana’s commercial beekeepers in particular, the hope endures that next year’s delivery won’t be quite so big.
A massive legislative draft under intense negotiation in Washington still includes an earmark of $20 million to research the mysterious cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
What’s less promising, entomologists say, is that the same bill would provide almost $5 billion in subsidies to large farming outfits looking to plow vast swaths of pollinator habitat in eastern Montana and the Dakotas.
Every five years, Washington embarks on a contentious effort to update the Farm Bill—a New Deal creation that acts as a master plan for American agriculture. The edition currently being volleyed back and forth between Congress and the White House has languished in debate over whether to maintain the current level of crop subsidies, even though food prices remain high.
Some of those subsidies, favored by a House majority, would certainly go to promote grain production in prairie land east of the continental divide. Due to anticipated demand for ethanol, grain prices are rising to record highs. The federal government plans to dissolve conservation contracts with private landowners to get more farmers on the ethanol bandwagon.
The subsidies that scientists claim will threaten pollinator habitat in eastern Montana are part of a larger program to bankroll the health of American grain—dubbed the “safety net” by supporters. On May 1, a Farm Bill sodbuster provision, which would have helped shield virgin grassland from speculation grain farming, died on the negotiating table, according to media reports.
Sen. Max Baucus helped spearhead the pollinator-friendly provision, but backed off when opponents insisted on restricting the regulation to the northern Great Plains. The Senator’s office did not respond to an Indy request for further clarification on why the sodbuster program was removed from the draft.
However, Pollinator Partnership spokesman Tom Van Arsdall calls the bill without such protections economically myopic, stating further degradation of prime pollinator habitat is certain to impact producers that depend on the bees to make their crops bear fruit and nuts. Many agriculturalists—from California to the Midwest—park their bee colonies on the biologically diverse high plains when their crops aren’t flowering.