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Hive mystery solved?

By Chris Camire, Lowell Sun

It was like something out of a horror movie.

Last October, honeybee populations across the country began disappearing in droves, and nobody could figure out why.

Pesticides were blamed at first. Then genetically modified crops were thought to be secreting deadly toxins. In a bizarre twist, one theory had cell-phone radiation confusing the bees, causing them to fly off course.

Frustrated beekeepers were left scratching their heads, wondering what cockamamie idea would come next. Downsizing? Alien abduction? The Rapture?

Now, a group of researchers at Penn State, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Columbia University have come across a major breakthrough in the quest to find a cause for the phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder."

The study, released today, pins the vanishing act on a new virus in the United States known as Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus.

"The other theories, especially the cell-phone theory, are of very low priority right now," said Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Advertisement Penn State University, who co-authored the study.

Rick Reault, who has been keeping bees in Tyngsboro for a decade, took the news of the virus with a grain of salt. He said he's been dealing with dying colonies for years, but he admits this summer has been worse than others.

"It's been terrible. I've seen things this year I've never seen before," said Reault. "Little or no nectar coming into the hives. Hives not building up strong enough to produce a work force to bring in nectar."

Reault said he expects the local supply of honey to be very low this year. He had to increase the number of hives he keeps from 50 to 100 just to produce the same amount of honey he did last year.

While dying colonies are a nuisance for backyard beekeepers like Reault, they can be economically devastating to large commercial beekeepers who migrate.

Crystal Card and her partner, Andrew Card, who own Merrimack Valley Apiaries, a commercial beekeeping outfit in Billerica, keep about 15,000 hives. They're stationed in New York right now producing honey and more bees.

The Cards spend a lot of time and money to keep their bees healthy, and so far it has paid off. They haven't lost any more colonies than usual this year. But with winter approaching, that could all change.

"We lose some but we work all the time to remake them and feed them. If they're going through periods where there isn't an excess of pollen, we'll feed them corn syrup or sugar syrup," said Card. "In January, that could all change. That's when you hear the horror stories."

This summer the Cards took their bees to New Jersey to pollinate high-bush blueberries. Then north to Maine for wild blueberries, to Cape Cod for the cranberry crop, only to finish out the season in California for the almonds.

Both Reault and the Cards welcome any advancements that could prevent colony-collapse disorder, but scientists are still in the early stages of figuring out what the discovery of the new virus means. Their next step is to determine if this virus alone, or with other factors such as microbes, toxins and stressors, can induce the disorder in healthy bees.

"This research gives us a very good lead to follow, but we do not believe (the virus) is acting alone," said the study's co-author, Jeffery Pettis, a researcher for the Department of Agriculture. "Other causes could be poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and parasitic mites."

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