N.C. State University entomology professor David Tarpy has studied honeybees for 14 years. He's seen bees die off due to mites, pesticides and a wide array of problems—but he's never seen anything like today's crisis. Tarpy is part of a national working group of scientists and federal officials investigating the causes of colony collapse disorder, or CCD, an affliction causing more than a quarter of the country's bee population to become disoriented, fail to return to their hives and die.
What's the scope of this problem?
The problem appears to be nationwide, in over half of the states. About 20 to 30 percent of the colonies that died this past winter seem to have been afflicted by what appears to be a CCD symptom.
Why is this a serious problem?
Most people think that beekeepers are just hobbyists who harvest the honey. Well, in reality, about a third of everything we eat relies on honeybees for pollination. Blueberries, apples, cucumbers, melons, squash—about 100 crops or so nationwide rely on bees. So they are a real keystone species in agriculture, and they account for $20 billion a year in produce. That's why it's so important that we're losing colonies and we can't explain why.
What are the possible causes?
There's this big laundry list of possibilities, so each of us is coming to the table and applying the techniques of our science to try to cross these different possibilities off the list and determine what's going on.
The working group's going to concentrate on three main areas. One is nutrition, stress and developmental health of the bees. The second is a new or existing pathology—some parasite, pathogen or disease that might be responsible, either a brand new one we don't know anything about or a new mutation of an existing one. Third, environmental contaminants.
I've read that pesticides called neonicotinoids, which were banned in France, are widely suspected to be the source of the problem.
That's on the top of the list.
Some people believe genetically modified crops are the culprit.
That's certainly a valid potential environmental contaminant, but it's actually relatively low on the list of priorities because beekeepers that have been experiencing these declines don't seem to be experiencing any pattern in regard to their proximity to GMO crops. There doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence, either anecdotal or empirical, that points to GMO crops as a major cause of CCD.
How much is North Carolina affected?
We don't know. Unfortunately, the reporting is passive; beekeepers voluntarily give the results through an online survey. I can't even tell you with any accuracy how many hives we have in the state. Record-keeping and reporting is one of the identified problem areas in apiculture.
How long has this been going on?
We don't really know. Just in the past six months have researchers been focusing on and describing this as a new disorder. Given how widespread it is, it's entirely plausible that this is something beekeepers have been dealing with for a while now.
You have a honeybee lab at NCSU. What kind of research are you doing there?
We have a genetics lab and offices on campus where we do our genetic work and protein analyses. Off campus at the Lake Wheeler farm complex we have a field lab where we have about 100 or so hives of honeybees scattered around.
Have those bees been affected by CCD?
No, in fact I have never actually seen it in the field, but my collaborators have.
On our own, through unfunded efforts, we've done some collections [of CCD-affected bees]. We have them in the freezer. We're going to look at the protein content and the nutritional health, and we'll also be doing some molecular genetic analysis to see if there's an influence of genetics on the prevalence of this disorder.