Turning the corner 

Honeybees Update

Three months ago Pattie Denke wasn’t sure what the summer would hold for the state’s 250,000 honeybee colonies. By February news of a mysterious and devastating disease that scientists were calling Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) had come to Montana (see “Bee-fuddling, March 8, 2007), and Denke, a state entomologist with the Montana Department of Agriculture, was looking for answers.

Researchers are still scrambling to find the cause and a cure for the disturbing ailment, which causes wholesale disappearance of entire bee colonies and leaves little in the way of clues, but Denke says Montana’s 200 or so beekeepers appear to have weathered the first wave of the disease.

“We’ve had some cases, but most of our guys seem to have turned the corner,” Denke says. “We’ve had some guys who came through really, really beautifully with most of their colonies intact, but we had one guy who lost more than 75 percent of the population of his bees.”

The disease caught researchers’ attention last fall, and by February it had been identified in 24 states, including Montana. By now, 35 states have identified cases. A team of researchers from the University of Montana has been tracking its spread, and so far it appears that at least five large-scale Montana beekeeping operations were hit by CCD with at least a handful of smaller-scale hobbyists reporting bee losses characterized by the disease.

But for the first time in months, Denke is buoyed by the latest news.

“We’ll still have to wait and see what happens during the summer, but right now it looks like we’re not having collapses any more, apparently,” Denke says.

Initial reactions to the colony losses vary nationwide, but almost everyone seems to agree that large-scale losses of honeybees, the most important agriculture-pollinating insect on the planet, could be devastating for the nation’s food supply. But in Montana, at least, the bees seem to be on the rebound.

“I really thought it would go on for quite a bit longer,” Denke says. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
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