Farmers in the United States say they are growing increasingly concerned about a mysterious shortage of honeybees. The U.S. government says it is investigating a dramatic decline in the bee population over recent months, and Congress has held a hearing on the issue. Bees are used not only to produce honey, but many crops depend on the tiny creatures for the pollination process. Steve Mort reports from a honey farm in the southern U.S. state of Florida.
Deep in the heart of rural America, farmers are talking about a crisis. At the root of the problem – a lack of honeybees.
Beekeeper David Hackenberg owns the Buffy Bee honey farm outside Tampa, Florida. He says he has lost as many as two-thirds of his beehives within a matter of weeks.
"It seems to be something brand new,” he says. “We've seen colonies disappear in the past, but the strange thing about this is the fact that we've got empty boxes that look just like somebody's swept the bees out of them."
The bees are vanishing due to something called Colony Collapse Disorder. Hackenberg's business, based in Florida and Pennsylvania, relies on making honey and renting bees to farmers to pollinate their crops.
"We're looking at a $350,000 loss,” Hackenberg says. “With what it's going to cost to replace the bees, lost pollination contracts, lost honey crops, you're talking a big, serious financial loss."
The exact cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is a mystery. But scientists at Pennsylvania State University are leading research into the phenomenon.
The university's Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group says poor nutrition, drought and pesticide use can cause extraordinary stress on bees.
That stress, the group believes, may damage the bees' immune systems – much like AIDS in humans.
Meanwhile, scientists with the U.S. Agriculture Department point to bugs called verroa mites. They kill bees by transmitting viruses.
Jerry Turner runs a honey farm near Orlando, Florida. He says the mites have become resistant to the insecticides used to kill them.
"You try to build your bees up to make honey and you put a lot of money and time and effort into them and then they start dying out,” he says. “These mites, they carry the viruses and such and the bees just start dying. And you try to make them up and increase your numbers again and you get kicked again."
But it is not just beekeepers who are suffering. A Cornell University study has found that bees pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States.
Carl Grooms owns Fancy Farms in Plant City, Florida, where he grows a variety of fruits and vegetables.
"If I weren't able to lease hives of bees to put next to my squash crops, I wouldn't plant them because there's not enough natural bees to pollinate them,” he says. “Cantaloupes [are] raised quite extensively here – that and water melon. You've got to have bees for those, and obviously if you're a big grower of those items you would decide real quick if there [were] no bees to rent, you would not plant them – and we're facing that".
The U.S. Congress recently held a hearing on Colony Collapse Disorder, and lawmakers agreed to push for more government funding for research.
Pennsylvania State University experts told the hearing that a move last year to allow imported Australian bees to service California's almond crop may have introduced a new bee disease to the United States.
David Hackenberg attended the Washington hearing. He says millions of dollars is needed to fund research.
But in Florida, local lawmakers have given only around $300,000 over the last two years.
And Hackenberg says by the time enough money arrives, it may be too late to stop hundreds of beekeepers from closing their operations.