Today, Scientific American brings us some answers to the question what happened to the honeybees? Since the "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD) appeared in 2006, millions of beehives have been abandoned by the bees, putting bee-pollinated crops at risk -- and in turn threatening the livelihood of farmers and apiarists (beekeepers). In the SA article Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees, researchers Diana Cox-Foster and Dennis vanEngelsdorp detail their efforts to solve the mystery, through contact with beekeepers and scientific investigation. A few snippets from the article (after a neat bee picture I took in 2004):
The bee loss has raised alarms because one third of the world's agricultural production depends on the European honeybee, Apis mellifera the kind universally adopted by beekeepers in Western countries. Large, monoculture farms require intense pollination activity for short periods of the year, a role that other pollinators such as wild bees and bats cannot fill. Only A. melliferacan deploy armies of pollinators at almost any time of the year, wherever the weather is mild enough and there are flowers to visit.
The growing consensus among researchers is that multiple factors such as poor nutrition and exposure to pesticides can interact to weaken colonies and make them susceptible to a virus-mediated collapse. In the case of our experiments in greenhouses, the stress of being confined to a relatively small space could have been enough to make colonies succumb to IAPV [Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus] and die with CCD-like symptoms.
Meanwhile many beekeepers have had some success at preventing colony loss by redoubling their efforts at improving their colonies' diets, keeping infections and parasites such as varroa and nosema in check, and practicing good hygiene. In particular, research has shown that sterilizing old beehive frames with gamma rays before reusing them cuts down the risk of colony collapse. And simple changes in agricultural practices such as breaking up monocultures with hedgerows could help restore balance in honeybees' diets, while providing nourishment to wild pollinators as well.
In short, CCD seems a bit like human AIDS -- an immunodeficiency which allows secondary infections and parasites to take over. It's a complex issue with a complex solution. Read the article for a fascinating bit of science writing, directly from the scientists who have been working on the problem.