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Where have all the bees gone?
Scripps-McClatchy Western Bureau


March 30, 2007
Friday AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gene Brandi is losing his six-legged livestock, and lawmakers want to know why.

A Los Banos, Calif.-based commercial beekeeper, Brandi normally manages about 2,000 colonies. On Thursday, Brandi told a House panel that about 40 percent of his colonies died out over the winter - by far, his worst loss in three decades of business.




"Even though my loss is substantial, other beekeepers throughout the country have suffered much greater losses," Brandi testified.

Beekeepers nationwide have likewise been reporting unexplained losses of between 30 percent and 90 percent, a top Agriculture Department official advised the House subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture. It's being called colony collapse disorder, and the causes are murky.

The abrupt collapse of bee colonies typically leave only a queen and a few attendants remaining alive. Pathogens, pesticides and mites have all been blamed.

Scientists more generally say "stress" - physical, not emotional - can compromise bees' immune systems. Beyond that, numerous research questions beckon. Publicly, it's heating up too; the subcommittee hearing Thursday morning attracted multiple camera crews.

"This is an urgent crisis," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "It demands urgent attention."

That's because farmers rely on commercial hives to pollinate roughly 90 crops. The San Joaquin Valley's $2.5 billion-a-year almond industry is particularly reliant on hard-working bees.

Each year in California, Stanislaus County almond grower Paul Wenger noted Thursday, "our crop fortunes rise and fall" on the pollination work handled by more than 1 million bee colonies raised or imported into the state. Wenger brings his bees in from Oregon; other farmers have taken to bringing in packages of bees from Australia.

"They're essentially six-legged livestock," said Dr. May Berenbaum, chair of the entomology department at the University of Illinois. "Bee health is utterly critical here."

Cardoza used his chairmanship of the House horticulture and organic agriculture panel to convene the hearing and summon local witnesses. Beekeepers say the next task will be boosting federal investment, perhaps in this year's farm bill that Cardoza is helping to write.

Currently, the federal government spends less than about $10 million a year on bee research. Beekeepers and their allies want this increased. On Thursday, Brandi and Wenger added that the federal government should also assign bee scientists to the well-situated University of California at Davis.

"The need for additional bee research is obvious," Brandi said. "There are just too many unanswered questions that need to be addressed if the bee industry is to survive."

A specialty crop bill already introduced by Cardoza would dramatically increase overall agricultural research. Although bees and honey are not specifically cited in Cardoza's multibillion-dollar, 120-page bill, some increased funding could potentially be applied to bees.

Some beekeepers say they need federally subsidized crop insurance, and others suggested disaster payments are suitable for those who have lost colonies. Cardoza cautioned, though, that beekeepers shouldn't raise their financial expectations too high.

"It is important to avoid the temptation to identify a potential problem and simply throw millions of dollars at it," Cardoza said.

A different kind of political problem faces beekeepers that want federal regulators to tighten pesticide rules.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that pesticides be tested for adult bee toxicity. In a proposal pesticide manufacturers might resist, beekeepers say chemicals should also be assessed for their potential to cause non-fatal harm.

"Some pesticides may cause bees to lose their memory, which prevents them from flying back to their hive," Brandi testified.

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Ketchikan, Alaska