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Progress on 'collapsing' beehives

Some warned of crop disaster when honeybees started to disappear. Crops didn't fail, but farmers and beekeepers aren't out of danger yet.

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Last fall, honeybee hives began showing up mysteriously vacant. Entire adult bee populations seemingly vanished without a trace, often leaving the queen, juveniles, and honey behind.

By spring, what beekeepers had called "autumn collapse" or "fall dwindle dis­­ease" had a new name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD hit nearly one-quarter of commercial beekeeping operations in the United States. Affected operations lost between 50 and 90 percent of their hives. In an industry where 10 to 20 percent yearly losses are common, the die-offs were drastic. In March testimony before the House's Committee on Agriculture, Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, called CCD a "serious threat to American agriculture."

Ultimately, pollination went smoothly this year. Imported bees replenished domestic stocks, and good weather aided weak hives. Research on CCD has progressed, though its exact causes remain hidden. But the crisis did highlight what some say is agriculture's overreliance on honeybees.

Honeybees pollinate one-third of all US crops – apples, almonds, and blueberries among them – valued at some $14.6 billion. For years, ecologists had warned that total reliance on honeybees – and on any monoculture, be it cotton, potato, or bee – makes a crop vulnerable to failure. Potential alternate pollinators – some 4,000 kinds of native bees – were having their own problems, from habitat loss and pesticides to imported diseases.

Alarmed lawmakers introduced the Pollinator Protection Act into Congress, which was later rolled into the 2007 Farm Bill. In July, the House authorized $86.5 million over five years for research on CCD and honeybee health. In October, the Senate raised the amount to $100 million. Meanwhile, scientists from several institutions and disciplines brought their expertise to bear on CCD. And in September, they named a prime suspect: the so-called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV).

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