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No Smoking Gun in Bee Health Crisis

John Walter Updated: 03/26/2014 @ 1:42pm

No single source, or “smoking gun,” can be blamed for the major decline in honey bee health, according to a new comprehensive report on the pollinators released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Experts instead cited multiple factors for the decline in honey bee colony numbers, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, and pesticide exposure.

Speakers who addressed the issue at a press conference in Washington Thursday included regulators, researchers, and beekeepers who were part of a honey health conference last fall.

"The decline in honey bee health is a complex problem caused by a combination of stressors, and at EPA we are committed to continuing our work with USDA, researchers, beekeepers, growers, and the public to address this challenge," said Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

The report underlined the importance of the issue for American agriculture and food production. About one third of U.S. foods are made possible by pollinators, primarily honey bees. Pollinators contribute to crop production worth $20 to $30 billion annually. 

Honey bee numbers have fallen to a critical-low stage in some areas and at certain times of the year. Recent examples were occurrences of crop pollination problems with blueberries in Maine and almonds in California. 

Upon questioning from the media, crop monocultures, or "commodity crops," corn in particular, were discussed for their negative impact on bee health.

“Cornfields are of no value to honey bees,” said Zac Browning, a North Dakota beekeeper and participant in the conference. "Crop monocultures are tough on honey bees,” he said.  "Modern farming practices are leaving very little land for pollinators.”

While citing the many challenges, or stressors, in honey bee health, EPA's Bob Periasepe referred to new actions related to pesticides in crop production, including a "number of measures at EPA to reduce pesticide exposure." 

The executive summary of the bee health conference report stated: "Acute and sublethal effects of pesticides on honey bees have been increasingly documented, and are a primary concern."

Periasepe also said the agency plans to work with farmers, seed companies, and machinery manufacturers to help growers reduce pesticide dust when planting, stating that new equipment will be "widely available" next year. 

The “key findings” addressed in the report include: 

Parasites and disease

The varroa mite is seen as a “major factor” contributing to colony loss in the U.S. and other countries, and new viruses have been identified with colony collapse disorder.

Genetic diversity

Greater genetic diversity in honey bees is needed to improve bee health and productivity. Honey bee breeding should emphasize traits that improve resistance to varroa mites and diseases. 

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