Ask the Ecologist:

by Belle Bergner

Q: I’ve heard that our honey bees are dying. What is killing the bees and is this going to affect our crops?

A: It’s true: bees are critical for the fertilization of many of our agricultural crops and we might have to figure out an economical surrogate fertilizer if current rates of bee colony deaths continue. Researchers are scrambling to find answers to what’s causing the affliction – recently named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – which has decimated commercial beekeeping operations across the country. United States Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said that the mysterious malady affecting honeybees already threatens nearly $18 billion in pollinated crops and could cause $75 billion in economic losses in the United States. The disorder has been found in 35 U.S. states, one Canadian province and parts of Asia, Europe and South America. Its origin remains unknown.

Johanns said the Department plans to spend $7.4 million researching colony collapse this year and noted that USDA would allocate an additional 2.7 million for pollinator projects from state extension service offices and other parts of the department.

“Preliminary work has identified several likely factors that could be causing or contributing to CCD,” says Dennis van Engelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “Among them are mites and associated diseases, some unknown pathogenic disease and pesticide contamination or poisoning.”

Another possible culprit is cell phones. Initial research has focused on the effect of cell phone radiation on the neurological mechanisms that control learning, memory, and communication among bee colony members.

U.S. Senators Barbara =Boxer (D-CA), John Thune (R-SD) and Bob Casey (D-PA) on July 26 introduced legislation, the Pollinator Protection Act, that would authorize $89 million in federal funding for research and grant programs at the USDA over five years to help research, protect and maintain America’s bee and native pollinator population and ensure the viability of crops that rely on them for pollination.

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Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2007