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|Articles - October 2010|
|Monday, September 27, 2010|
Page 1 of 4
BY ROBIN DOUSSARD // PHOTOS BY ADAM BACHER
Over the millennia, honeybees also have become critical soldiers for the agriculture industrial complex. Pulled out of deep hibernation, bundled up and shipped all over the place, they are subjected to much stress and disease. But they get the job done. On their hairy little backs rest the worldwide responsibility for 80% of all insect pollination. The annual value of the 90 crops in the U.S. that require pollination by honeybees is estimated at $24 billion; in Oregon it’s almost half a billion dollars.
When their numbers began to plummet in the winter of 2006, the modest and generally unsung honeybee was in the spotlight. Headlines shouting “Honeybee disaster!” were followed by many stories of the mysterious CCD, colony collapse disorder, which were followed by much worry about the fate of the bee and the complete and total collapse of the food supply if the mysterious bee losses continued. The state re-funded the vacant bee researcher position at Oregon State University and Oregon’s small and politically insignificant commercial beekeepers — only about two dozen own and manage 90% of the 50,000 colonies in the state — gained new support.
Keeping honeybees healthy has been a longtime battle. When the Varroa mite came to North America in 1987, it decimated the population (which is native to Europe), and recovery over the decades has been hard-won. In Oregon, this is the fourth year of bee losses of 25% or higher. Researchers agree there is not just one reason, but many possible ones: bad weather, poor nutrition, stress, pesticides, weak queens, loss of habitat, and mites that have become resistant to treatment and are transmitting viruses, which is new.
“The beekeepers have been having a problem for a long time,” says W. Steve Sheppard, an entomologist with Washington State University. “So the reaction that we’ll lose our bees and they’ll cease to exist was a little over the top. But we’re doing some things differently. Beekeepers are much more aware of colony health. They’ve become better beekeepers, the more successful ones.”
It comes down to the better beekeepers. While honeybee losses are serious, there is no longer panic. Better now to worry about their human handlers because the irrefutable part of this story is that it rests on the backs of that small cadre of dedicated commercial beekeepers to keep the honeybee thriving. Without them, the honeybee most certainly would be in deeper Bandini.
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