WASHINGTON — Agriculture Department scientists are mobilizing to fight the puzzling and potentially catastrophic collapse of the nation's honey bee colonies.
Citing a "perfect storm for beekeepers," alarmed officials admitted Friday they still don't know why bees are dying in large numbers in more than 22 states. But prodded by Congress and farmers alike, the scientists will be devoting new resources to protecting the diligent pollinators some call six-legged livestock.
"There were enough honey bees to provide pollination for U.S. agriculture this year, but beekeepers could face a serious problem next year and beyond," Agriculture Undersecretary Gale Buchanan warned Friday.
Nationwide, honey bees pollinate more than 130 crops. They are particularly dutiful in some areas, such as California's nearly $3 billion-a-year almond industry. Of the nation's 2.4 million commercial bee colonies, 1.3 million pollinate almond orchards.
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"The bee industry is facing difficulty meeting the demand for pollination in almonds because of bee production shortages in California," the Agricultural Research Service noted.
Prepared with the help of scientists at North Carolina State University and Pennsylvania State University, among others, the 28-page action plan issued Friday proposes:
The new work will focus on so-called "colony collapse disorder." This is when the colony's adult bee population abruptly dies, leaving only the queen and a few attendants alive. Typically, there is no sign of mite or beetle damage. Some think toxic exposure or nutritional deficits might be undermining the bees' immune systems.
Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in California's San Joaquin Valley, told lawmakers that 800 of his 2,000 bee colonies collapsed inexplicably last winter. Brandi lost an estimated $60,000 in pollination income from his Los Banos-based operation, and he's spent an additional $48,000 to restock his lost colonies.
"This is the greatest winter colony mortality I have ever experienced in 30 years of beekeeping," Brandi testified earlier this year.
A draft farm bill scheduled for House Agriculture Committee approval next week includes new funding to study colony collapse disorder. Separately, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., has introduced legislation to authorize an additional $7.25 million annually for related research.
"Colony collapse disorder is a looming disaster on the horizon," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., said Friday. "We must continue to devote significant resources to understanding and treating the disorder."
Earlier this year, as chair of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, Cardoza convened the first congressional hearing into the colony collapses. Spokesman Jamie McInerney said Friday that Cardoza and other lawmakers might seek additional honey bee funding as part of the fiscal 2008 Agriculture Department appropriations package.
The Agriculture Department plan sets out goals for both the short and long term. Immediately, for instance, scientists will "refine" symptoms to define what colony collapse disorder "is and what it is not." Longer term, the National Agricultural Statistics Service will develop a more reliable annual survey on honey bee colony production and health.
At the same time, officials are ruling out some theories.
"Based on misleading news reports, the public has become concerned that cell-phone use may be causing bee die-offs," the Agricultural Research Service noted Friday. "However, scientists have largely dismissed this theory, because exposure of bees to high levels of electromagnetic fields is unlikely."