WASHINGTON — Concerned Agriculture Department officials on Monday announced the start of an ambitious survey of honeybee colonies in California and a dozen other states.
Prompted by a worrisome decline in bee populations nationwide, officials hope the new $550,000 survey will pinpoint the parasites and diseases responsible. It's a particular problem in regions like California's Central Valley, where farmers rely on honeybees for pollinating crops.
"There has been a disturbing drop in the number of U.S. bee colonies over the last few years, while the demand for commercial bee pollination services continues to grow," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
California's almond crop alone requires more than 1.4 million colonies of bees annually, amounting to more than half of all bees in the United States. The state's lawmakers have been at the forefront of the legislative effort to find out more about what's gone awry.
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Lawmakers included the money for the honeybee survey in the 2007 farm bill, and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, has conducted two oversight hearings into the bee population decline.
"Whatever kind if research we can get, it's a good thing, because bees are such a valuable commodity," Janet Brisson, a Grass Valley resident and treasurer of the Nevada County Beekeepers Association, said Monday when informed of the survey.
The survey of 320 apiaries, though, is not a census of the total bee population. Instead, it will focus on mortality and troublemakers.
Specialists from the Agricultural Research Service and Pennsylvania State University will collect bees and debris from selected apiaries. An acutely detailed, 22-page set of instructions specifies every step of the operation.
"You will need to open eight colonies and ... shake the adult bees into the collection wash tub," the instructions state. "You will collect two one-quarter scoops of bees and these bees to go into (an) alcohol bottle and in the live bee box for that apiary."
The samples will then be tested for evidence of pests or pathogens, including foreign mites known as Tropilaelaps.
Scientists and beekeepers already know there's a problem. Since 2006, they've been tracking what's called Colony Collapse Disorder. Adult bees abandon hives, never to return.
In some cases, beekeepers have reported losing between 30 percent and 90 percent of their hives. An Agriculture Department telephone survey last year found that apiarists reported losing nearly 29 percent of their honeybee colonies between September 2008 and April 2009.
Nationwide, there are currently about 2.5 million honeybee colonies.
"We need results," Visalia-area beekeeper Steve Godlin told Cardoza's House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee two years ago. "We need a unified effort by all."
So far, scientists have not identified a single cause for the population decline. Potential culprits include new microbes or viruses, pesticides and environmental stress. Agriculture Department scientists say cell phones aren't a problem, despite earlier speculation.
The new survey is slated to last through the end of the year.