Harvest Threat: So Few Bees, So Many Crops

Article excerpt

When was the last time you saw a honeybee on a flower? If the answer is "not recently," it wouldn't be surprising.

It's not easy being a bee in America. In the 1980s, wild bees in the United States were devastated by an invading parasite, the varroa, or "vampire mite." Since then, the situation has gotten even worse.

The bee population has been steadily dropping, mainly because of varroa but also because of pesticides and predator birds.

Now, as pollinating season hits full swing in the United States, farmers of the 90 or so crops that depend on bees for pollination are feeling the tightest pinch ever.

"For the first time in our history [pollination] is a limiting factor in crop production," says Keith Delaplane, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "For a long time ... it was one of those things that just took care of self."

With virtually no wild honeybees left, US farmers rely on commercial bee colonies. But this year only about 2.6 million colonies remain to pollinate the millions of acres of melons, cucumbers, almonds, apples, avocados, and kiwi, to name some of the crops that depend on honeybees. That slender bee army - down from 3.2 million colonies in 1990 - is all that stands between Americans and a vastly more boring diet.

Scientists and beekeepers are feeling the pressure. Hope for crop pollination this year rests temporarily on new chemicals to kill the bee parasites, but the mites have been developing resistance to them. So researchers are exploring long-term solutions such as genetically altered bees that can resist mites or bees that are imported from eastern Russia and have adapted to the varroa mite.

Some bee experts worry that regional shortfalls in bee availability are only going to get worse before they improve.

"We're very concerned about the declining effectiveness of the chemicals," says Troy Fore, executive director of the American Bee Keeping Federation in Jessup, Ga. He says there's a threat the mites could wipe out more commercial bee colonies in coming years if new solutions are not found soon.

Impact on almonds

Perhaps the most extreme example is California's big almond crop (1 billion pounds annually) that requires pollination every February. This year, there were barely enough bees to pollinate the state's 520,000 acres of almonds, says Joe Traynor, a pollination broker in Bakersfield, Calif., who matches farmers with beekeepers.

With two bee colonies needed per acre, more than 1 million hives are required. California has about 500,000 hives and about another 500,000 were trucked in. …