OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

A step closer to a silent spring

05/12/1997

CORVALLIS - Think about it - have you seen any wild honeybees lately? Probably not. And it may be a long time before you ever see one again.

This simple insect, a buzzing harbinger of spring and supplier of honey since the settlers at Jamestown tackled the wilderness in the early 1600s, is disappearing from North America.

Yes, there's a thriving beekeeping industry in the U.S. - it can provide the chemical treatments necessary to protect hives from parasitic mites that are quietly killing all the wild bees. So you can still see a honeybee if you visit a 2,000-tree fruit orchard that's renting them for pollination.

But elsewhere? In your home garden, or cherry tree, or on your flowers?

Forget about it. Without the grandeur of a California condor or the headlines of a spotted owl, the wild honeybee is practically gone. Not an "endangered species" in any legal sense, of course. It's just gone.

"The mite problem had been getting steadily worse, and then the harsh winter of 1995-96 caused a horrendous crash in wild bee populations in the Midwest and eastern United States," said Michael Burgett, a professor of entomology at Oregon State University.

"Right now 85-95 percent of the wild honeybees have died, and pretty soon the only wild hives around will be colonies that escaped from human-kept hives," he said. "Then they'll die too."

Burgett, a honeybee and pollination expert, has trekked literally around the world studying the problems facing honeybees - including 17 trips just to Thailand, the ancestral and evolutionary home of an insect that, after 375 years of residence, we think of as "native" to the United States.

He was among the first to warn about the impending doom wild colonies faced from parasitic "varroa" and tracheal mites accidentally imported into the U.S. in the 1980s - a tragedy now blossomed into a full-scale epidemic.

These mites, Burgett said, have now spread around most of North America and are wreaking havoc on wild hives - whose numbers, by one rule of thumb, used to at least equal the three million commercial hives in the U.S.

"But that doesn't begin to describe the role honeybees used to play," Burgett said. "Colonies were carried from Europe and then across prairies in covered wagons. In 19th century America, a nation of small farmers, everyone had a couple bee hives for honey and pollination. It's part of our heritage."

The human side of the story, Burgett said, is reflected in stories he's heard of home gardeners offering to pay commercial beekeepers to leave a hive near their backyard. "They miss the sight and sound of the bees," he said.

The commercial and practical side of disappearing honeybees revolves around miticides, pesticide resistance, "mite-resistant" genetic strains of bees, and the need for research into new bee species usable for pollination.

"From a purely practical point of view, this is not a natural disaster that modern agriculture can't deal with," Burgett said. "Beekeepers who know what they're doing can keep their honeybee hives alive, although it's expensive and the mites have doubled the usual amounts of winter kill."

And largely sight-unseen, there are still about 3,500 other species of bees in the U.S. to perform many or most pollination needs for the home gardener. Some sound classy, like bumblebees. Others are ratty little insects like the mason bee, sweat bee or "mining mud bee." They're often tiny, solitary, live in holes and add little ambiance to a warm spring afternoon.

"Of course, even in commercial apiculture these mites are still a big problem," Burgett said. "There are 90 crops around the U.S., valued at about $10 billion, that depend on commercial pollination. And 99.9 percent of that managed pollination is done with honeybees."

Because of that ongoing demand - and the demise of the wild honeybee that used to pick up much of the pollination slack - the business of many commercial beekeepers is flourishing. Pollination fees doubled in the past 10 years and wholesale honey prices are up 90 percent in the past two years.

Researchers, of course, will try to develop better solutions. Some honeybees may eventually develop what Burgett calls "mite tolerance," although the process will be slow. And any genetic resistance that does develop might be watered down by the continued presence of mite-infected commercial hives.

"By keeping the weaker bees alive, we're encouraging survival of the weakest," Burgett said. "That's not great. But commercially, we simply can't afford to let all the non-resistant bees die. It's too Draconian.

Meanwhile, wild colonies will largely disappear. The garden will still bloom and be pollinated by some little bug. The grocery will still have fruit.

But the meandering honeybee bouncing from flower to flower in the warm sun is gone. And the spring will be a little more silent.