Colony Collapse Disorder has plagued U.S. commercial honey bee keepers since 2006, sometimes with losses in the hives of up to 90 percent. The scariest part about this disorder is that no one knows the cause.
Honey bees in the U.S. pollinate more than 130 different crops, including high-value fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables. Along the way they increase crop market values by $15 billion annually, according to the USDA.
Ramesh Sagili, who heads honey bee research at Oregon State University, is working to help solve the complicated puzzle of Colony Collapse Disorder. Here are five things to know about Sagili's current research.
- Honey bees need a balanced diet. Just like humans, bees need a variety of vitamins and minerals to maintain good health. One single source of pollen is unlikely to give the bees everything they need and may weaken their immune systems, says Sagili. Currently, most U.S. commercial hives are transported to California in January to pollinate vast almond fields, where the bees have only almond pollen to eat for more than a month. Sagili is studying the effects of single-source diets on the health of the bees.
- Honey bees can be tricked. Sagili and his team are testing the potential of a synthetic pheromone to stimulate foraging in honey bee colonies. It's one of several strategies they believe may enhance the efficiency of pollination in crops, from carrot seed to blueberries.
- Honey bees need health care. Honey bees are plagued by pests and diseases that compromise their immune system and can lead to colony collapse. For three years, Sagili's lab has been sampling colonies to determine the intensity of these ailments. This diagnostic service helps beekeepers maintain healthy hives.
- Honey bees respond to the needs of the hive. In collaboration with Texas A&M University, Sagili's team tested different levels of synthetic brood pheromone, a chemical scent that tells forager bees how many immature bees (brood) are present in the hive. They found that the foragers changed their collecting habits based on the ratio of brood to workers, increasing their efforts when necessary to ensure colony growth and stronger hives overall.
- Better hive management is key. There will always be some colony loss, says Sagili, and 10 to 15 percent loss may be sustainable. Sagili surveyed Oregon beekeepers in 2009 and found a 25 percent colony loss. His 2010 survey indicates a loss of about 20 percent. He suggests that this improvement may be related to regular inspection, parasite inhibition, and supplemental pollen sources.