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The Day the Bees Stopped Coming Home

CAS sociobiologist James Traniello on the mystery of the disappearing honeybees

James Traniello, a CAS professor of biology, says that scientists are scrambling to find out why the honeybees are dying.

As spring approaches, beekeepers across the country fear that something is terribly wrong. In at least 20 states, millions of bees have died, and millions more have flown away, probably never to return to their hives. No one knows why.

BU Today
talked about the mystery with James Traniello, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of biology, whose fields of expertise are behavioral ecology and the sociobiology of insects.

BU Today: What is the extent of the loss of bee colonies? 

Traniello: Beekeepers are reporting 60 to 100 percent loss of their hives.

What does that mean for our economy? Is it possible to calculate how much bees contribute?
Yes. About one-third of crops are pollinated by honeybees; this translates into roughly $14 billion in losses. Honeybee pollination is so significant that U.S. farmers rent hives at a cost of about $150 million a year to attempt to ensure pollination.
What is the likely cause of the disappearance?
The reason for the disappearance of honeybees is not understood, but there are several speculations as to why “colony collapse disorder,” as it’s been called, occurs: fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases; pesticide use and toxic nectar and pollen; development and the alteration of natural landscapes; or a combination of these factors acting in concert are likely involved. Parasites accidentally imported from Europe could play a role. It may also be that domestication of the honeybee has reduced genetic variation, which is important in adapting to disease. Honeybee queens are polyandrous — that is, they mate with multiple males. Recent research has shown that the greater the number of drones inseminating a queen, the greater the resistance of her offspring to disease. One might hypothesize that genetic variation has decreased due to lower levels of polyandry, and that this has had the consequence of increasing susceptibility to infection.
What would happen if all the honeybees went away and never came back?

Bees pollinate an extraordinary number of flowering plants, and crops of course. It would be hard to imagine life without honey, fruits, vegetables, and seeds and the visual beauty and scent of flowers. Honeybees also serve as a model for the study of social complexity, so much insight into social organization will be missed.
What are researchers doing about this?
I believe the expression is “scrambling” — to try to identify the cause or causes. Researchers are performing autopsies on affected hives. Excellent forensic science is needed, and it’s needed fast. The National Academy of Sciences has released a report on the problem and has made a number of recommendations, ranging from concerns related to pesticide use to land use. I imagine many researchers at agricultural colleges and universities are focusing on these problems.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.