US Beekeepers Fear Influx of Australian Bees
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to continue imports of Australian bees, which had been stopped by the Australian government six weeks ago. The Australian bees are being used to replace American bees decimated by Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease that has ravaged bee colonies across America.
But some scientists say that the foreign bees could introduce a dangerous new parasite previously unknown to the continent. "We've got enough problems with our own bee diseases that we don't know how to treat, and they open the border to a whole new species that could carry God knows what," said North Dakota beekeeper Ken Haff, a vice president of the American Honey Producers Association, to the Associated Press.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian bees produced in north Queensland, which has suffered from an infestation of the Asian Honey Bee for the past few years, will still be banned.
Commercial farmers and small-time beekeepers continue to express concern about Colony Collapse Disorder, and especially its effect on large commercial farms that require thousands of hives to pollinate their crops.
"It's a controlled crisis right now," said Bob Duxbury, a beekeeper from Virginia, to the Culpeper Star-Exponent. "They are a fascinating little insect and they're in trouble—they're in big trouble. We could lose them all."
The problem has also spread to Western Europe, and has prompted the European Parliament to create special "recovery zones" for the bees. The measure to create areas where bees will be provided with diverse, pesticide-free habitats was passed in November.
The zones are just one suggested solution to the problem—last summer, researchers at the University of Warwick in England suggested that fungal foot baths using naturally occuring fungi would be an effective, nonchemical way to kill the varroa mite, a honeybee parasite suspected of contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder. Scientists are exploring a wide variety of methods to distribute the protective fungi thoughout bee hives—testing everything from powder sprays to fungal foot baths placed at the entrances to hives.
The varroa mite, or Varroa destructor, feeds on bees’ circulatory fluid and also weakens hives by activating and transmitting other diseases. The mites are currently kept under control with chemical pesticides, but there is concern that they are developing resistance to the chemicals.
Colony Collapse Disorder causes bee populations to suddenly abandon their hives, including their queen and eggs, leading to mass deaths. The problem has led to an alarming decline in bee populations worldwide in recent years. It has attracted widespread concern, as more than 90 crops rely on bees for pollination, without which harvests of widely consumed fruits, vegetables and nuts could fail.
In May, a survey found that 36.1 percent of America’s commercial beehives have been lost since last year. “That’s an astonishing number. Imagine if one out of every three cows, or one out of every three chickens, were dying. That would raise a lot of alarm,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, president of the Apiary Inspectors of America, the group that commissioned the survey.
The first reports of the disease became known in 2004, and in June 2007 the Department of Agriculture called it “the biggest general threat to our food supply.”
Research has raised a variety of theories as to the disorder’s cause, including pesticides, fungi, parasites, cell phones, genetically modified crops and viruses.