• 20 MAR 07
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    #681: Insects used for pollination disappearing from hives

    FRom martin Weatherall:

    Insects used for pollination disappearing from hives

    By Judith K. McGinnis/Times Record News
    March 1, 2007

    Weeks before North Texas peaches, strawberries or melons can even come into bloom, beekeeper Jean Bouchard is already counting his agricultural losses by the barrelful.

    Surrounded by stacks of empty hive boxes, Bouchard, like hundreds of beekeepers across the United States, is in the midst of a mystery. Their bees are dying from causes unknown, sometimes simply vanishing from their boxes over a matter of days.

    “So far I’ve lost about 160 of 300 colonies,” said Bouchard, looking down into a barrel of dead bees and ruined honeycomb. “Nobody knows what’s causing it but pretty soon it could turn into a big problem.”

    Experts have dubbed the mysterious syndrome Colony Collapse Disorder. The first alarms were sounded in California where the growing season starts early and many vegetable and fruit crops depend on bee pollination.

    Now 22 states from South Dakota to Florida are reporting signs of CCD. Most large farming operations hire bees on 30-day contracts from keepers like Bouchard; they bring hives in during the blooming season to pollinate crops.

    Without bees, the potential impact to Texas food crops can only be imagined.

    “I just got through working with several big contractors, one that runs about 6,000 boxes and he’s had big losses. He told me that in 32 years of beekeeping he’s never seen anything like it,” said Bill Baxter, assistant chief with Texas A&M’s Apiary Inspection Service.

    “In terms of agricultural impact it will affect pollination of sunflowers around Plainview and the high plains, melon growers, alfalfa around Vernon and Frederick,” Baxter said. “We won’t know the worst until July but losses could be in the multimillions.”

    Most fruit and produce growers in the Charlie-Thornberry area own their own hives but may hire a keeper like Jerry Breedlove to maintain them.

    With peaches, one of the area’s most famous cash crops on the line, Breedlove said he’s keeping a close eye on the colonies in Wichita and Clay counties.

    “So far we’re doing very well, but the way CCD works, it can look good today and in three weeks they’re gone,” he said. “It’s a shame because last year, despite the drought, beekeeping and honey production had some success.”

    Without a cause for CCD, it’s difficult for beekeepers to know how to stop it. Theories range from problems with imported bee strains from Israel and Egypt (like ranchers, beekeepers crossbreed to improve production), the cumulative effect of long-term exposure to pesticides to changes brought about by pollens from genetically modified plants.

    Bouchard, who recently attended a national beekeepers conference in Austin, has decided to treat his remaining colonies for nosema , a spore that affects adult honeybees. He calls it “mid-gut disease.”

    “Until we find out what’s causing this there’s really no point in repopulating the hives,” he said, holding up a frame of healthy, busy bees. “And this year we were going to start raising more of our own queens.”

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