Bees dying in big numbers across nation, but not here

Bees dying in big numbers across nation, but not here

URBANA – Honeybees are dying off in massive numbers all over the nation, threatening crop production – but Illinois is a notable exception.

"We've escaped so far," said May Berenbaum, head of the Entomology Department at the University of Illinois, as well as author of several insect books.

Therein lies a great advantage.

"I think we stand to gain a lot by looking at where this has not shown up," she said.

Illinois is one of a handful of agricultural states that have not been bedeviled by colony collapse disorder, in which up to 90 percent of the bees in the hive have died off recently, and inexplicably.

Arlyn Hopkins of Dadant Inc. in Hamilton, which has operated in the bee industry for 140 years, hasn't seen any problems with Illinois honeybees.

"We're as busy as we've been," he said. "It's a problem all around us, but not here in Illinois."

Hopkins, who keeps five hives of his own, said there's "no rhyme nor reason" to how different colonies fare.

"For lack of a better name, we're basically looking at three or four prominent theories, and no facts," he said.

Hopkins said his best guess is the colony collapses might be caused by a confluence of factors, including genetically altered crops, labeled and non-labeled chemical use and its residues, and unknown factors.

Scientists nationwide have been looking at parasites, an unknown virus or bacteria, pesticides, or a one-two combination of the top four, with one weakening the honeybee and the second killing it, according to a U.S Department of Agriculture press release Wednesday.

In the long search for cause, Illinois has an advantage in that its main crops, corn and soybeans, are generally wind-pollinated.

Bees are needed to spread pollen in almost 100 of America's top crops, including apples, almonds, broccoli, celery, citrus fruits, melons and squash.

The honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of insect pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Corn doesn't need bees at all and soybeans, although they do benefit by bee visitation, can get along without them," Berenbaum said.

Wind pollination is familiar to anyone who has ever sneezed.

"It's a very inefficient system that ends up in peoples' nostrils," Berenbaum said. "Plants that are insect-pollinated don't need to produce so much pollen."

Berenbaum and graduate student Reed Johnson are looking at frozen bee corpses to see if they can find a mite or bacteria at the scene of the crime.

But the killer is unknown and at large.

"You should see the hundreds of e-mail suggestions I receive that blame solar maxima and minima, ultraviolet radiation, too much pesticide, alien abductions," she said.

Catastrophic honeybee death is a misunderstood but well-known phenomenon.

Berenbaum has an 1880 beekeepers textbook that discusses "disappearing disease" or "spring dwindle."

In 1963, Louisiana and Texas had colony collapses.

But the collapses tend to be restricted in time and location, said Berenbaum, while the 2007 incident has some beekeepers reporting up to 90 percent losses in their hives.

"In 1979, there was a similar mysterious honey bee disappearance (although not as extensive)," she says, noting that Illinois was also spared then.

"Why are we immune again?" Berenbaum asked. "Is there something about the state that leaves bees less vulnerable? If we could find out, the rest of the country would benefit."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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