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Mystery ailment killing bees

By GENARO C. ARMAS

The Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A mysterious illness is killing tens of thousands
of honeybee colonies across the country, threatening honey production, the
livelihood of beekeepers and possibly crops that need bees for
pollination.

Researchers are scrambling to find the cause of Colony Collapse
Disorder.

Reports of unusual colony deaths have come from at least 22 states.
Some affected commercial beekeepers -- who often keep thousands of colonies
-- have reported losing more than half of their bees. A colony can have
roughly 20,000 bees in the winter and up to 60,000 in the summer.

"We have seen a lot of things happen in 40 years, but this is the
epitome of it all," said Dave Hackenberg of Lewisburg-based Hackenberg
Apiaries.

The country's bee population has been shocked in recent years by a tiny
parasitic bug called the varroa mite, which has destroyed more than
half of some beekeepers' hives and devastated most wild honeybee
populations.

Along with being producers of honey, commercial bee colonies are
important to agriculture as pollinators, along with some birds, bats and other
insects. A recent report by the National Research Council noted that in
order to bear fruit, three-quarters of all flowering plants --
including most food crops and some that provide fiber, medicines and fuel -- rely
on pollinators for fertilization.

Hackenberg, 58, was first to report Colony Collapse Disorder to bee
researchers at Penn State University. He notified them in November when
he was down to about 1,000 colonies after starting the fall with 2,900.

"We are going to take bees we got and make more bees ... but it's
costly," he said. "We are talking about major bucks. You can only take so many
blows so many times."

One beekeeper who traveled with two truckloads of bees to California to
help pollinate almond trees found nearly all of his bees dead upon
arrival, said Dennis vanEnglesdorp, acting state apiarist for the
Pennsylvania Agriculture Department.

"I would characterize it as serious," said Daniel Weaver, president of
the American Beekeeping Federation. "Whether it threatens the apiculture
industry in the United States or not, that's up in the air."

Diana Cox-Foster, a Penn State entomology professor investigating the
problem, said an analysis of dissected bees turned up an alarmingly
high number of foreign fungi, bacteria and other organisms and weakened
immune systems.

Researchers are also looking into the effect that pesticides might be
having on bees.

In the meantime, beekeepers are wondering if bee deaths over the last
couple of years that had been blamed on mites or poor management might
actually have resulted from the mystery ailment.

"Now people think that they may have had this three or four years,"
vanEnglesdorp said.


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