Runaway Bees

UM Science Chases Colony Collapse Disorder
By Ginny Merriam

It’s been half a year since a Florida beekeeper called University of Montana bee scientist Jerry Bromenshenk with news that would send his research in a new and curious direction.

Most of the bees, the man said in his December phone call, had simply gone missing. They left behind their queens and their unprotected young, something preposterous in bee behavior. No one saw them leave. No one found their bodies.

Could Bromenshenk come and take a look?

“When they call me in Montana from Florida, you know they’ve got a problem,” Bromenshenk says. “My sense was they were trying to find a fresh perspective on this. We realized this wasn’t just routine.”

Bromenshenk had heard a similar complaint from Columbus, Montana, beekeeper Lance Sundberg in October. Was there a connection? Bromenshenk and his colleagues at Bee Alert Technology Inc., a UM-connected technology company, soon were part of a working group that went to Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and Georgia to study the foundering bee colonies.

“Within just a few days, we knew we were looking at the same thing,” he says.

The working group named it Colony Collapse Disorder, a name appropriate to what is known about it.

“If you call it a disease, you imply it’s a pathogen,” Bromenshenk says. “What it is is a collection of symptoms.”

For the agricultural beekeeper, CCD is disastrous, causing millions of dollars in losses for a large commercial operation.

National Honey Bee Loss Survey

One of the tools Jerry Bromenshenk and his colleagues at Bee Alert Technology Inc. are using to investigate Colony Collapse Disorder is a National Honey Bee Loss Survey. They’re looking for patterns of disease, exposure to toxins, and management practices that may be linked to incidents of CCD.

As of June 1, 625 individual beekeepers had responded from the United States and Canada. They operate in forty-three states and five provinces and have reported CCD in thirty-five states and at least one province in the past sixteen months.

Two-thirds of the responding beekeepers operate fewer than one hundred colonies. The remaining third manage colonies of more than one hundred, one thousand, and ten thousand colonies. Nearly seventy fall into the ten thousand-plus category.

Here are some results:

• All sizes of operations report severe losses of bees during the past six months. Smaller operations are more likely to have seen more severe losses than normal. The severity drops among the largest operations. Overall, 40 percent reported severe losses this past winter. More than 80 percent attributed bee loss to overwintering death or CCD.

• Regardless of operation size, beekeepers attribute the cause of colony failure to pesticides about 4 percent of the time. They cite mite disease in 15 percent of cases, overwintering death in 39 percent, and disappearance in 43 percent.

• In the most severe losses reported, bee disappearance or CCD was implicated nearly twice as often as any other factor.

• In the 40 percent who reported severe losses, the losses topped 75 percent on average. They implicated CCD by a nearly two-to-one ratio.

• Beekeepers experiencing CCD also report a significant occurrence of currently prevalent pathogens such as mites, viruses, hive beetles, the “brood” diseases, and wax moths.

The collaborators are looking now at medications beekeepers use, examining responses from a range of beekeepers-—from organic operations to those that use multiple medications and techniques to control pests and diseases. Some organic beekeepers have experienced CCD.

To see more survey results, visit Beekeepers can take the survey by going directly to

“You pull the lids, and you see empty box after empty box after empty box. It really gives you a sick feeling,” Bromenshenk says. “It doesn’t even have to be your bees. It makes you say, ‘Something’s really wrong here.’”

Sundberg, a board member of the American Beekeeping Federation and whose Sunshine Apiary is one of the state’s largest operations with 5,800 colonies, saw a 50 percent loss last season. He spent $150,000 on bees from Australia to fulfill his spring pollination contracts. He estimates his loss on pollinating the California almond crop at $420,000 alone, affecting his income and that of his fourteen employees.

But CCD is not widespread enough to be an industry-wide crisis.

“Fortunately, we still have enough beekeepers that are not affected that we can keep producing crops,” Bromenshenk says. “We’re not at a point where we’re jeopardizing our crop production.”

Now more than six months out, the outbreak of CCD is showing a silver lining. Bromenshenk and the other scientists have gathered a body of knowledge that points toward an understanding of the syndrome—what it might be and what it is not. Second, national press coverage has raised the public awareness of the importance of bees in our food system. The investigation is raising beekeepers’ awareness of the way they manage their colonies and suggesting changes. And, among the most exciting to Bromenshenk, it has brought out developing technology that will help beekeepers maintain the health of their bees in a field that still runs on old-fashioned intense labor.

The average grocery shopper doesn’t know that at least one-third of the food in the store wouldn’t be produced without honeybees and their pollination work. In service of our monocrop agricultural system, beekeepers move their colonies around the country as much as nine or ten months of the year. Roughly 74 percent of Montana bees travel this way. The biggest work is the California almond crop. It requires 1.2 million colonies for a few weeks in February and March for pollination. Of the 2.5 to 2.6 million colonies in the United States, about half of American bees converge to make a successful crop.

That single job is what provides the profit in a small-margin business, says Columbus beekeeper Andy Drange, president of the Montana State Beekeepers Association.

“Everybody goes to California,” Drange says.

Drange’s 400 hives go and work the season. In mid-March, he starts home, stopping in Washington to pollinate cherries and apples. Some beekeepers work citrus fields in California. In Montana, there’s some work for bees on the canola crop around Great Falls and the Hi-Line, as well as on the limited Flathead Valley cherry crop and some apricots. Mostly, summer is spent producing honey. But imports from China and Argentina have cut out all the profit in honey, even though Montana honey is high-quality because of its low exposure to pesticides, Drange says.

“We do it because we’re home,” he says.

It’s hard to characterize the economic value of the bee industry because of the way agricultural statistics are kept. They track pounds of honey produced: in 2006, 10,428,000 pounds, a value of $10.4 million at $1 a pound.

Montana ranks in the top ten states for honey production. Pollination is a $14 billion- to $20 billion-a-year industry. About one-fifth of the pollination work in California alone is done by Montana bees. A look at pollination receipts, Bromenshenk says, puts Montana bees economically second to cattle.

“That changes the picture,” he says.

But evidence suggests that that busy-bee lifestyle is key in Colony Collapse Disorder. Honeybees evolved living in hives in trees. Modern beekeepers aren’t the first to move bees—ancient Egyptians moved them on barges—but bees today are jetsetters by comparison. Bromenshenk suspects that science will show a combination of factors that make bees susceptible to a web of stressors: an accumulation of chemicals and pesticides, recent drought years, nutrition, and the frequent traveling.

“We still don’t know if it’s something old or something new,” he says. “My own bias is it’s probably something old that cycles.”

That makes sense to Drange in Columbus.

“We’re taking a beehive anymore and making it work ten months out of the year, nine months out of the year,” he says. “That adds a lot of stress to them.”

Bromenshenk is sure that it’s important to monitor and optimize a colony’s health, and he’s excited about new technology that could help beekeepers do that. His past work has used bees to detect chemicals in unexploded landmines, used laser technology to trace bees’ flight patterns, and monitored changes in sounds coming from bees in hives in reaction to exposure to chemicals. That led him to conceive an idea for a handheld device that would give a readout describing the health of a hive. It would be a medical tricorder for bees, much like the Dr. McCoy device in Star Trek.

Working with the Stevensville firm Biological Virus Screening, Bromenshenk inspired U.S. Army scientists who look for viruses as terrorist threats to humans to develop a quick test for bee viruses. In response to CCD, scientists using the Integrated Virus Detection System took samples from Bromenshenk and others around the country. Starting with a discount-store coffee grinder, they ground ten to sixty bees in sterile water, spun them, filtered them, and sprayed the suspension out through a stainless-steel column, then screened for viruses using lasers.

The cost is about $30 a sample, and the process now has a turnaround time of less than two hours.

“What we’re excited about is we’ve got a quick and easy way to look at a sample,” he says. “If this is something new, we’ll see it.”

“Over and above the CCD, we’re excited we’ve made a breakthrough with new technology for bee management,” he says.

Bromenshenk would like to see at least three mobile labs and a standing lab to serve Montana’s large beekeeping industry. He visualizes offering free health analysis in exchange for detailed information from beekeepers in a questionnaire. That may take a Congressional appropriation, which the Bee Alert group is working on with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because the instruments could cost $250,000 each. New grants are helping the work develop. Eventually, Bromenshenk would like to see the screening service become something affordable that beekeepers would pay for.

Sundberg would be among the first in line. It makes sense, he says, to pay for health monitoring for bees—the way people who raise animals pay veterinarians.

“I’m sure a lot of beekeepers thought Jerry was dreaming, but now it’s come to fruition,” he says. “Basically, if Jerry puts his mind to it, he can get it done.”

Ginny Merriam ’86 is a freelance journalist who lives in Missoula. An award-winning reporter for the Missoulian for twenty years, she currently is the communications director for the City of Missoula.

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