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The Hive Minders

Humans fly into action to help bees following epic 2006 die-off

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April Lance is behind the wheel of her father's old Ford pickup, talking honeybees as the truck bounces through the Alexander Valley en route to White Oak vineyard and winery for a "hive dive."

It's a cool and sunny day in the valley as Lance tells the recent and troublesome history of the honeybee (Apis mellifera). She's headed to the vineyard to check on two wooden-box hives vineyard proprietor Bill Myers has set up, using local Italian honeybees that Lance breeds and sells. Her bees, she says with pride, are known for their gentle, calm demeanor, and are raised in a chemical-free environment at her place along the Dry Creek in Healdsburg.

Lance offers many intriguing—and troubling—factoids about the honeybee, industrious apian pollinators in the great ecological cycle of life responsible for about one-third of the food humans consume. Without the honeybee, she says, we'd be eating a diet, basically, of oat gruel.

The bees have been up against the ropes since the winter of 2006–'07. That year, commercial beekeepers around the country and abroad faced an outbreak of a rare phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder" (CCD). Beekeepers would go out to attend to their honeybees, only to find "empty hives and dead bees all around," Lance says. "There had been dips before, but the bees had overcome it," she says. "This was a massive collapse." The bee situation in Thailand is so dire that farmers there are reduced to hand-pollinating their produce.

It hasn't gotten that bad in the United States, where lots of research and money has been poured into figuring out the cause of CCD.

On Feb. 25, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would provide $3 million to Midwestern farmers and ranchers to help improve the health of bees. "Honeybee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet," says Ag secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. "The future security of America's food supply depends on healthy honeybees."

Cause & Effects

The USDA hosted a honeybee conference in 2012 and offered numerous interlocking explanations for the scourge of colony collapse disorder. A report from the conference noted that 10 million beehives had collapsed since the November 2006 collapse, at a cost to beekeepers of about $2 billion.

During the peak of CCD, beekeepers were losing up to one-third of their bees (where the historical annual die-off rate is between 10 and 15 percent). The report noted that the phenomenon had tapered off by 2012, but that the fragility of the bees' situation was such that any single determinant could kick the collapse into high gear. It identified drought as one such determinant.

The "whys" of the collapse do not fit neatly into one convenient causality, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the bee's critical position as an enabler in the human food chain. The Environmental Protection Agency offered attendees of the conference a numbing run-down of the various factors that contributed to the 2006 bee-pocalypse, and it ain't pretty:

• The invasive varroa mite, a pest that enters the bee's neck, bores holes in it, and eventually kills it

• "New or emerging diseases" such as Israeli acute paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema

• Pesticides applied to crops and used for "in-hive insect or mite control"

The EPA also cited "bee management stress" and "foraging habitat modification" as possible drivers, along with poor nutrition, drought and "migratory stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distance to provide pollination services."

Lance adds fungicides to the list and is also concerned (and convinced) that the advent of genetically modified organisms is playing a role in the honeybees' dodgy health situation over the past decade or so.

Buzzin' Along

The bees are doing their part to try and survive the various postindustrial onslaughts they now face.

Conscientious and a little neat-freaky, honeybees are hardwired to never die in the hive. "They keep the hives spotlessly clean," says Lance. If a mouse should enter the hive, the bees will encase the rodent in their wax so it doesn't befoul the living space.

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