Part Two: Toxic cocktail may be causing bee collapse

| 10/23/2008

SPECIAL SERIES: Bee crisis – OOIDA member credited with discovery
Editor’s note: Staff Writer Clarissa Kell-Holland searches for answers from OOIDA member David Hackenberg of Lewisburg, PA, who is credited with discovering colony collapse disorder or CCD, a mystery that is decimating bee hives worldwide.

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OOIDA member David Hackenberg of Lewisburg, PA, is credited with discovering colony collapse disorder, which is decimating bee hives worldwide.

The ongoing Colony Collapse Disorder crisis has baffled bee researchers. Mary Ann Frazier, a senior extension associate in the entomology department at Pennsylvania State University, has been on the front lines in researching CCD since receiving a phone call from Dave Hackenberg about his bees just vanishing.

Frazier, a beekeeper herself, has been studying the declining health of honeybees for a long time, but she and researchers still haven’t been able to pinpoint one single factor that is causing CCD. 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, so 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 Magazine in August.

Frazier and other researchers immediately began interviewing beekeepers, sampling colonies from beekeepers that were experiencing CCD, and those that were not.

She said they also examined pathogens, pesticides and the genetic makeup in the colonies, as well as the presence or absence of varroa mites or other parasites that are problems for bees. She and other researchers 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 were then sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab for analysis for pesticides. Many still haven’t been sent to the USDA lab yet due to the cost, according to Frazier. She said it’s an expensive process, about $200 per sample.

Frazier said Penn State received a $250,000 grant from Haagen-Dazs ice cream to research the honey bee crisis. According to the Haagen-Dazs Web site, the company depends on honey bees to pollinate ingredients used in nearly 40 percent of the company’s premium ice cream flavors.

“This is a very significant contribution from an industry to do this work,” Frazier said.

Frazier said during the 2006-2007 season, more than 31 percent of colonies in the U.S. were lost to CCD, and that the statistics rose to more than 38 percent in the 2007-2008 season. The assessment of bee colonies is typically done in the early spring.

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

Hackenberg estimates he lost between 65 percent and 70 percent of his bees during the 2006-2007 season. This past season, 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 beef up his bees.

He said he has stopped using soybeans and corn syrup in his feed because both are treated with chemicals and insecticides that he worries may be weakening his bees’ immune systems. Instead, he’s switched to sugar and honey for carbohydrates and to dried eggs for protein for the bees.

He said beekeepers across the country are reporting their bees are suffering from weakened immune systems – possibly due to insecticides – despite their efforts to keep them healthy. Hackenberg compares the effects Colony Collapse Disorder has on bees’ immune systems to the aging process in humans.

“The aging process … breaks down the immune system, and then something else comes along and wipes it out,” he said. “We set out to do (nutrition) with the bees.”

“The good Lord made them to work on pollen and nectar, which are supposed to be about as pure a thing as you can get, but chemical people have played around with Mother Nature.”

After stumbling on some old research using eggs for protein in bee feed, Hackenberg set out to find a company that would sell him dried eggs for his feed. Hackenberg Apiaries now sells that feed to other beekeepers around the country.

“We started playing around with it, and it actually worked so well that it’s become a sideline business for us,” he said. “It’s kind of like the trucking business; you’ve got to have a couple of sideline businesses, too.”

Hackenberg is no stranger to the political process in Washington, DC. While serving as president of the American Beekeeping Federation from 1998 to 2000, he said he was one of three names that “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. He has been to four congressional hearings in the last year to discuss CCD and currently serves on the Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream Bee Board. The board is made up of honeybee experts dedicated to funding research to save the collapsing bees.

What’s next? Read Part Three of “Bee crisis” on this Web site on Friday, Oct. 24.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer