Bee colony study planned by USDA

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 such as the Central Valley, where farmers rely on bees 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.

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 of 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 go into (an) alcohol bottle and in the live bee box for that apiary."

The samples then will 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 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives. An Agriculture Department telephone survey last year found that apiarists reported losing nearly 29 percent of their honeybee colonies from September 2008 to April 2009.

Nationwide, there are 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."

Scientists have not identified a single cause for the population decline. Potential culprits include new microbes or viruses, pesticides and environmental stress.

The new survey is slated to last through the end of the year.