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Bee Fuddled

The puzzling disappearance of Rocky Mountain bees


For the last 35 years, Lance Sundberg has devoted his life to honeybees. The Columbus, Mont. resident started his first beehive in 1972 as an eighth-grade 4-H project. The next year, he added a second set of bee boxes and split the hive into two. The year after that, he added two more hives—also known as colonies—and again doubled his bees and increased his honey production. Over the course of the ensuing decade, Sundberg added more and more colonies to his thriving apiary (the technical name for a bee yard), and by 1983 his passion for bees had outgrown his childhood hobby and become his livelihood.

Now with 5,600 honeybee colonies of his own, plus an additional 2,000 hives leased from beekeepers in Washington and Nebraska, Sundberg runs one of Montana's largest beekeeping businesses. Every year in late October, he packs his bees, loads them onto trucks and ships them to California where, from February through spring, they go to work pollinating the state's almonds and fruit crops. For five to six months out of the year Sundberg lives on the road, traveling from California's Central Valley almond orchards north to Washington's apple orchards. He usually returns home to Columbus, a small mining town west of Billings, for no more than 10 days during the season.

"We're kind of like gypsies in a way," says Sundberg in his easy central Montana drawl. "We pack our houses and all of our trucks and machinery and all our bees and migrate around the country."

But now, a mysterious ailment afflicting the nation's honeybees is threatening Sundberg's livelihood. Across America, millions of honeybees are abandoning their hives and flying off to die, leaving beekeepers like Sundberg facing potential ruin. In at least 24 states, beekeepers are reporting inexplicable disappearances of entire colonies. Some beekeepers have lost more than 80 percent of their colonies already this year, the bees simply disappearing from the hives without a trace. The malady, which researchers have dubbed "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD), is not only threatening the livelihoods of beekeepers, but could have serious impacts on the production of the country's fruit and nut crops, many of which depend on honeybees to pollinate their blossoms.

And so far no one has a clue as to what's causing this troublesome and mysterious disorder.

"I'm in the middle of it," Sundberg says from California, where he's been unloading pallets of beehives. "It's a real volatile business right now, and we don't understand the cause of some of the deaths of our colonies."

Sundberg says of the 21 semitrailer-loads of bees he hauled to California, five truckloads-worth have died. In each case, the bees have up and left the boxes without leaving any trace.

"The bees are just gone," he says. "The unusual thing about this phenomenon is that you don't know where the bees went. You know they were there last week, and you go and look the next week, and they've just disappeared."

The Valley Question

California's Central Valley, which runs in an 80-mile-wide band from Bakersfield to Chico, produces nearly 100 percent of the almonds consumed in the United States and approximately 80 percent of the almonds consumed worldwide. It's a $2.2 billion industry, and California's 580,000 acres of almond orchards rely entirely on honeybees to pollinate the blossoms. That one crop draws more than half the nation's bee colonies--some 1.2 million--during the February-to-March pollination season, and competition among beekeepers for contracts is stiff.

"Almonds are the biggest money game in the business," Sundberg says.

The high demand for bees, coupled with increased death-loss ratios of colonies due to parasitic mites, hive beetles, wax moths and now the mysterious CCD, has led to skyrocketing costs to rent pollinating bee colonies. In 2004, Sundberg rented boxes of bees to almond growers for about $53 per colony for the season. The last two years the price has been closer to $140 per colony.

But despite nearly tripling his rental fees in the last three years, Sundberg says for the first time in his career, he is more than $100,000 in the hole. Due to the heavy CCD losses he sustained last month, Sundberg says he spent about $120,000 importing bees from overseas just to maintain his contracts with growers. That's money he's never had to spend in years past, and it's hitting his bottom line.

"That will turn around when the growers start making payments to me for my pollination services, but I've never had to buy supplemental bees in that kind of volume," Sundberg says. "I've never had these kinds of death-loss ratios before."

Not all beekeepers are as straightforward about the growing CCD problem as Sundberg. Not wanting to miss out on lucrative almond pollinating contracts, some beekeepers are replacing their lost hives with imported bees or subleasing honeybee colonies from other beekeepers. And many are not reporting their collapsed colonies for fear of losing contracts.

Not only is that making it more difficult for researchers to ascertain just how widespread the problem is, it's also allowing others to ignore the problem entirely. The Almond Board of California isn't even convinced CCD exists.

"We were really notified by the media of this phenomenon from East Coast news reports," says Marsha Venable, a spokesperson for the Almond Board. "We had no empirical evidence of how that might impact the pollination this spring."

Venable says the Almond Board hasn't received reports from growers indicating widespread losses of bees, and so far, physical inspections of bee colonies haven't turned up any red flags, she says.

"The assessment was that there was indeed a viable amassed collection of bees to service all of the pollination requirements. We did not find evidence of widespread colony collapse or unhealthy bees," Venable says.

But that doesn't jibe with the sense of fear running through the nation's beekeeping community.

The feeling among some beekeepers is there's a growing distrust of pollinators by almond growers who feel they are being gouged. Sundberg says he can understand how it might be hard for growers to swallow the increased costs, but maintains he's not experiencing increased profits.

"My rate has gone up, but I'm barely holding my own, which is real tough for almond growers to understand," Sundberg says. "They honestly think beekeepers are getting rich right now, but the problem is ... you have all those input costs, but you don't have the income-generating ability because the bees keep disappearing."

During a normal year, once Sundberg's bees are in the orchards, he returns home to Columbus for 10 days or so while his bees do the work. But this year, that's not going to happen. Instead, he'll stick around and monitor the boxes for signs the colony is dwindling because he knows if his bees can't fulfill his end of 64 contracts, there are plenty of competitors waiting to pick up his work.

"The plus for growers is that there are enough beekeepers ready to go to almonds that you can draw bees from as far away as Maine, New Jersey and Florida," he says.

It's an unsettling time for beekeepers like Sundberg. Because the almond industry isn't acknowledging the problem, and many beekeepers don't want to talk about it, researchers are scrambling to solve one of the greatest mysteries the beekeeping industry has ever seen. And every time Sundberg goes into the orchards and opens a box of bees, he's not sure what he's going to find.

The Studies

Although the recent widespread collapse of honeybee colonies wasn't brought to researchers' attention until late last fall, some scientists suspect the disorder may have been around longer than originally thought. In fact, it's possible scientists are only now recognizing a malady that's been popping up for years, and a group of Montana researchers are leading the way in finding a solution.

"My belief is that what's going on right now has been seen before, but we've never really gotten a handle on it," says Jerry Bromenshenk, a University of Montana entomologist and CEO of the Missoula-based company Bee Alert Technology.

Bromenshenk heads a team of researchers and an apiary technology company out of an office laboratory on Missoula's north side. He and his team made international news in recent years for their work using honeybees to locate land mines, and are now part of a national consortium of scientists and researchers working to solve the current mystery of disappearing bees.

In January the National Honey Board approved an emergency request for $13,000 to support research into finding the cause of and a cure for CCD. The research group comprises university faculty researchers like Bromenshenk, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension educators and industry representatives. The UM contingent is asking for beekeepers' assistance in reporting instances of CCD by identifying management practices and environmental factors that might be common to the losses (beekeepers are urged to log on to and take part in the National Bee Loss Survey). Armed with this information, Bromenshenk's crew--in coordination with Pennsylvania State University, Florida's Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture--is hoping to narrow CCD's possible causes.

One thing researchers already seem to agree on is that CCD has been around longer than previously thought. According to the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, investigations into the recent phenomenon suggest that beekeepers were experiencing outbreaks of unexplained colony collapse for at least the last two years. Bromenshenk says similar outbreaks can be traced back to published reports in the late 1800s, but the most recent documented outbreak was in the 1960s and was known simply as "disappearing disease." At that time, researchers were never able to pinpoint the cause of the disappearances, which weren't as widespread as the current malady and ceased before scientists were able to adequately research them.

"Our CCD group is trying to bring some fact-finding into play on this whole issue," Bromenshenk says. "We have some new technologies available now that weren't available in the '60s."

Even with those new technologies, researchers have yet to identify a common thread tying the recent disappearances together.

"We have no idea what's going on here," Bromenshenk says. "There are all kinds of hypotheses."

But to Bromenshenk's frustration, explanations that seem to make sense one day are often refuted the next as more beekeepers report losses. Furthermore, it's not uncommon for beekeepers to lose colonies to various pests, diseases or simple human error, so it's likely many beekeepers haven't bothered to report past losses. It wasn't until large-scale commercial pollinators began losing massive amounts of bees last fall that anyone took serious notice.

"If one or two or three beekeepers lose a bunch of hives, we may never hear about it," Denke says. "A lot of times, beekeepers lose one or two colonies and they're kind of used to it. They usually blame themselves. 'I didn't take care of that one,' or, 'that one was weak going in.'"

Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg, of Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisberg, Penn., was the first to bring CCD to researchers' attention last fall. Hackenberg, an outspoken past president of the American Beekeeping Federation and current National Honey Board member, has been keeping bees for more than 40 years. He runs about 3,000 colonies up and down the East Coast, pollinating everything from Florida oranges to Maine blueberries. Last October, he dropped a load of bees in a Florida orange grove, but when he returned to check on the hives in mid-November, he was shocked by what he found.

"When I pulled in to look at them, there was nothing there," Hackenberg says from his Lewisberg home. "There were no dead bees on the ground, and none in the boxes. In my 40-some years of keeping bees, I've never seen anything like it."

Hackenberg says the hives were sitting empty of bees but with honey still in them. That's significant because Florida beehives are plagued by wax moths, which infest the hives and feed on the wax. Honeybees are also notorious thieves. If a strong bee colony senses that it can overtake a weaker colony, it will swarm in and rob the honey from the weaker hive. But what Hackenberg found were boxes full of honey and empty of rival bees or pests. And almost no dead bees were found on the ground.

"There were millions and millions of bees in those hives, and there weren't enough dead bees to fill four boxes, much less 400," he says.

So Hackenberg loaded up his "dead-out" hives, rounded up a small handful of bees he found that were still alive, and delivered them to researchers at Penn State, where one of the world's foremost apiary disease research labs is located.

"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."

Initial studies of dying colonies revealed a large number of disease organisms present in the bees, with no single disease being identified as the culprit.

"I suspect what we're going to find is that this thing is a multifaceted problem," Denke says. "For all we know this may be an interaction of known pathoge,ns. But if we're dealing with a disease organism, it may be a new organism."

Solutions?Or More Mystery?

Like others, Hackenberg replaced many of his dead colonies with imported bees. But that practice brings with it its own host of concerns.

Bromenshenk worries beekeepers will combine the remnants of hives hit by CCD with healthy colonies, which might spread the malady further. Since no one knows the cause of CCD, it's possible that infected bee boxes, frames and combs could infect the new colonies.

That's a concern Denke shares: "If someone wants to import bees from another country ... there's nothing to stop them from doing that," she says, adding there's no federal system of colony inspection, and if imported bees are infected with some previously unknown pathogen, there would be no way to know.

According to Bromenshenk, no one has actually witnessed the sudden exodus of adult bees from the hives, so researchers have no solid evidence regarding bee behavior to give them clues as to what's happening or how they're leaving. Bees have an innate ability to find their way back to their hives. They will fly many miles in search of nectar, pollen and water, but normally return. The predominant theory of how they're disappearing is that they're setting off to work and just not returning to the colony. Presumably the bees are dying in the fields, losing their ability to navigate back to their hives or simply falling victim to cold. But so far there's no solid evidence or explanation for why they would become disoriented or lost.

"It appears some of the risk factor is migratory in nature," Denke says.

But since the disease was first noticed in the late fall after many seasonal beekeepers had already winterized their hives, there's no telling how bad CCD will hit those stationary colonies until beekeepers start heading out into the field to check on their overwintered bees.

That mystery is why thousands of beekeepers and agricultural producers throughout the country are counting on Bromenshenk and his interstate team of researchers to find a cause--and a cure--before CCD turns the collapse of individual colonies into the collapse of the entire industry.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Missoula Independent.