Over the past seven years, a stunning one-third of the U.S. honeybee population has disappeared without a trace – a mystery that’s baffling beekeepers and scientists, and raising concerns about the impact on the American food supply.
U.S. Department of Agriculture bee researcher Jeff Pettis, who is leading the government’s search for answers, said there’s a lot more at stake in the disappearance of honeybees than just honey.
“If you walk into your grocery store, you might see about only one-third of the produce left in the produce aisle,” Pettis said, explaining what a world without bees would look like. “Apples and nuts and many of the fruits and vegetables would simply not be available if we didn't have bees or something to pollinate.”
In an interview with “Power Players” at the USDA’s bee research laboratory outside Washington, D.C., Pettis explained that in colony collapse disorder,” the scientific name for the sustained loss of honeybees in recent years, the worker bees leave their hives and never return.
“We don't find dead bodies,” Pettis said. “If they die from starvation, you'll see dead bees in a colony. If they die from a direct pesticide kill, you'd see dead bees in a colony. … In colony collapse disorder we're not finding the dead bodies.”
So where do the bees go? Pettis said there’s a biological explanation for their seeming disappearance.
“The truth is we don't know exactly where they go,” he said. “But it's very common for a diseased animal, a dog or in this case a bee, to die away from the hive, or die away from the home. So, when they're infected with certain viruses and bacteria, we know that they, their inclination is to die away from the hive.”
Despite years of research on mass bee disappearance, Pettis said scientists hadn’t found a “smoking gun” to explain why.
“We're looking at a whole host of things,” he said. “Nutrition, pesticide exposure, and then things like viruses and bacteria infection, so we're looking at combinations of things.”
With winter just around the corner, Pettis worries that the die-off could continue or get worse.
“Last year, we saw in the fall, we got reports from beekeepers that the bees were in poor shape, and sure enough, last year was another bad year,” he said. “At this point, I'll be optimistic, but history over the past seven years has said we're going to lose about a third of those bees this falling winter.”
To learn more about colony collapse disorder, and to join us on a tour of Pettis’ bee colonies, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC’s Alexandra Dukakis, Michael Conte, Tom Thornton, Mike Allen, Jim Martin and John Knott contributed to this episode.