Long live the queen
An OOIDA member discovered the disorder that has beekeepers and scientists around the world worried about the future

By Clarissa Kell-Holland
staff writer


Raising honeybees and trucking them around the country isn’t supposed to have all the elements of a crime novel. But David Hackenberg says that he’s dedicated the past year and a half to unraveling the mystery of why the world’s bees are “crashing.”

Hackenberg’s lifelong fascination with bees began with one hive as part of a Future Farmers of America project in his freshman year of high school in 1962. By the time he graduated from high school, he had a few hundred hives.

Now – 46 years later – Hackenberg, an OOIDA member from Lewisburg, PA, has a migratory operation that consists of more than 3,000 honeybee hives. He trucks them all over the country to pollinate the nation’s fruit and vegetable crops.

However, he is most widely known in the United States and internationally as being credited with discovering the mysterious disappearance of millions of honeybees, called colony collapse disorder – or CCD – which is decimating bee hives worldwide.

“We (beekeepers) knew we were having problems with our bees starting back in 2004,” he said, “but nobody could get a handle on what was going on.”

In the fall of 2006, Hackenberg and his son, Davey, who helps run the family operation, headed down to Florida to check on their 400 bee hives they had trucked down there a few weeks earlier.

When he opened the first hive, Hackenberg said there was just silence, no buzzing sound. The queen and all of the adult bees were simply gone, having abandoned their newly hatched brood, which he said they typically don’t do. He then opened the next box and then the next one, and the results were the same: The adult bees had simply disappeared.

In his 46 years in the business, Hackenberg said that was the first time he had experienced bees just vanishing. He even got down on his hands and knees and looked to see if there were any dead bees on the ground, but found nothing.

After getting over the initial shock, Hackenberg said he started going through all the possible scenarios of what he could have done wrong.

“Beekeeping is a lot like trucking,” he said.

“When something goes wrong with your truck, you immediately think, ‘What did I do wrong?’ It’s the same with bees. When most of your bees die off for no good reason, you blame yourself first.”

Mystified, Hackenberg started making calls to other beekeepers to find out if they were experiencing similar problems.

“When this first started happening and hives of bees were just disappearing, some were blaming themselves, (thinking) that maybe they didn’t have their management under control or something like that,” he said. “So they did not speak up initially.”

Toxic cocktail may be
causing bee collapse

The ongoing CCD crisis has bee researchers baffled, too. Maryann Frazier, a senior extension associate in the entomology department at Pennsylvania State University, has been on the front lines in researching the collapse since receiving a phone call from Hackenberg about his bees “just vanishing.”

Frazier, a beekeeper herself, said she and researchers still haven’t been able to pinpoint one single factor that is causing the collapse. Instead, a combination of factors seems to be contributing to the honeybees’ collapse.

“Dave was the one who kind of blew the whistle on this whole CCD thing. When he started talking to us about it, we had hoped that we would be able to find the significant source very quickly, but that didn’t happen,” Frazier told Land Line.

Frazier and other researchers examined pathogens, pesticides and genetic makeup in the colonies, as well as the presence or absence of varroa mites or other parasites. They even looked at what beekeepers were feeding their bees for possible clues into what was weakening the honeybees’ immune systems.

The samples taken from pollen, wax and bees would then be sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab for analysis for pesticides. Many haven’t been sent to the USDA lab yet because of the cost. She said it’s an expensive process, about $200 per sample.

“We think there is a synergistic effect that’s going on that a variety of pesticides are producing a toxic cocktail that may be really problematic for the bees,” she said.

Frazier said that during the 2006-07 season more than 31 percent of colonies in the U.S. were lost to CCD. More than 38 percent were lost in the 2007-2008 season.

Hackenberg estimates he lost between 65 percent and 70 percent of his bees in 2006-2007. This past year, his losses were down to about 45 percent. Knowing he can’t take a significant financial hit again, he’s been doing extensive research to find ways to build the bees up, including what he feeds them to boost their immunity.

“Dave and other beekeepers we are working with are pouring money into these bees and their operations, and they will not survive if this keeps happening,” Frazier said.

“I think they are very serious in saying they are not going to be able to survive many more seasons of this – trying to feed the bees, trying to build the bees up, trying to make splits from their remaining colonies. Financially, emotionally and physically, they are really strapped.”

Chasing solutions

After losing a significant number of bees in the previous two seasons and having to pump an enormous amount of money back in to keep his business afloat, Hackenberg’s woes have been compounded by fuel costs and operating costs.

“Our transportation costs are a real problem in the pollination business,” the OOIDA member said. “We have some trucks of our own, but we also hire a lot of this done, too.”

For other trucks, he was paying on average about $3.50 per mile to move his bees as of late July.

With little relief in sight in terms of fuel costs, many beekeepers were planning this summer how to pay for trucking their hives to the West Coast for the almond pollination. Hackenberg estimates that beekeepers will truck between 1 million and 2 million hives of bees out to California this year to pollinate the almond crop.

“In the U.S., we truck a lot of bees,” he said. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea what goes on and how much bee movement there is in this country.”

Hackenberg said he estimates that he and his bees log an average of 60,000 miles a year on the road.

Hackenberg and others committed to solving the mystery of the missing bees are encouraged by several recent developments.

Penn State has received a $250,000 grant from Haagen-Dazs ice cream to research the honeybee crisis. According to the Haagen-Dazs Web site, the company depends on honeybees to pollinate ingredients used in nearly 40 percent of its premium ice cream flavors.

In addition, in August of 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force the federal government to disclose studies that were supposed to be done on the effect pesticides are having on honeybees.

As Josh Mogerman, public information officer for the NRDC, said: “We think this is a crisis. There is a sense of urgency here, and the federal government needs to do much more to address why these bees are dying and disappearing.” LL



Editor’s note: OOIDA member David Hackenberg is no stranger to the political process in Washington, DC. While serving as president of the American Beekeeping Federation, from 1998-2000, he said, he was one of three who “signed on the dotted line” in an anti-dumping suit filed against China and Argentina about their cheap import prices on honey. In late 2000, the International Trade Commission ruled in favor of U.S. beekeepers and imposed duties of as high as 184 percent on imports from those two countries.

He has been involved in the ABF for more than 25 years and served two past stints on the National Honey Board.