Unsolved Mystery: Vanishing Bees Stump Scientists

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Maine -- It's been five years since a Pennsylvania beekeeper sounded the alarm about the mysterious death of honey bees around the world. But are researchers any closer to figuring out what's causing these vital pollinators to vanish?

For some people, the buzzing of bees can send a shiver down the spine. For experts in agriculture, it's a symphony -- especially now, when honey bees are continuing to die at an alarming rate.

"Millions of hives have been lost, and the real value of the bees is crop pollination in our country and in Europe," Tony Jadczak, the state apiarist of Maine, told CBN News.

Pollination Necessary

Honey bees help pollinate about one-third of our food supply, including many favorite fruits and vegetables. For example, 100 crops represent 90 percent of the world's food, and more than 70 of those crops are pollinated by bees.

"You wouldn't have an apple if the bees weren't there when the apple tree was blooming," said Dr. Jeffery Pettis, a research leader at the federal government's Bee Research Laboratory near Washington, D.C.

"You would have to move that pollen from tree to tree, and bees are the key to that," he said.

That's why researchers like Pettis are trying to unlock the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder -- or CCD. Since 2006, seemingly healthy bees have abandoned their hives and never returned.

Researchers estimate nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the United States have disappeared.

"The fruits and vegetables have a bit higher value both monetarily, and I think, nutritionally, than do rice, corn, and wheat," Pettis told CBN News. "Those are staples. They'll keep you alive. You can survive on staples, but you can't thrive. You can thrive on those other fruits and vegetables and nuts."

Wild blueberries in the state of Maine depend on honey bees. Without their pollinating travels, you can scratch the number one antioxidant fruit in the world off the menu.

"We brought in roughly 65,000 hives this year from all over the United States to pollinate the wild blueberry crop," explained Jadczak, who oversees Maine's beekeeping operations.

Extra Stress a Factor?

Commercial beekeepers truck their bees all over the country. That moving around has some experts wondering if the extra stress is a part of CCD.

"You'd think it would cause some stress, and I'm sure it does, but it doesn't seem to be a major driver of what we're seeing," Pettis said.

"Those beekeepers who are stationary, don't move their colonies, are suffering the same losses as the migratory beekeepers," he said.

One recent study by a Swiss researcher suggests cell phone signals could be the problem. But Pettis disagrees.

He said while his team has uncovered evidence to rule out that and other potential causes, they haven't found the "smoking gun."

"Initially, we were looking for that one pathogen or that one new virus that we thought might be the cause, and so far to date we haven't found that," he said.

Pettis and other scientists instead focus on what he calls the "three Ps" -- poor nutrition, pesticides, and pathogens.

One suspect is the vicious Varroa mite.

"Not only is it literally sucking the blood out of the adult bees and the developing bees, but the mite is also a vector of various viruses," Jadczak said.

Bee Health

As researchers search for the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, they encourage beekeepers to concentrate on the health of the bees they do have.

"When they're in times of the year or in an area where they think there's not enough pollen coming in, beekeepers are feeding extra protein, and that seems to help -- seems to produce healthier colonies," Pettis explained.

Those feedings can lead to healthier diets and a healthier economy. Workers at Wyman's in Maine know this all too well.

"With $15 billion worth of produce that's pollinated by bees annually, everybody is going to have something on their dinner table that is pollinated through honey bees," said Darin Hammond, senior manager of farm operations at Wyman's.

The company, which is the country's leading grower, packer, and marketer of wild blueberries, has taken a hit because of CCD.

Hammond told CBN News that pollination costs have gone up around 35 percent.

"I think that the cost of beekeeping and the cost of renting bees is going to continue to increase over time," Hammond said.

Still, he said Wyman's is pressing on, providing grants to universities for CCD research. Scientists and researchers appreciate the funding.

Pettis said he also welcomes Divine intervention in solving the mystery.

"We'll take all the help we can get," he said.

--Originally aired June 16, 2011

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.