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Honeybees’ departure not so sweet

Despite their small size, honeybees are essential contributors to the human food chain. Their gentle hum does not boast the important process they are quietly performing. As they carry pollen from one flower to the next, they are allowing wild plants, gardens and farm crops to flourish.

Since 2005 the western honeybee population has experienced a record-breaking death rate, with many beekeepers recording a loss of half to two-thirds of their hives, according to the journal Agricultural Research. Although the cause is unknown, in 2007, researchers attributed this mysterious death increase to a syndrome dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

The causes of CCD are still a hot topic of debate. All that is really known is that bees from a hive with CCD will fly out of their hive one day and never return. One possible explanation of CCD is cell tower radiation.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University said other possible causes of CCD include pesticide contamination, mite infestation, poor nutrition, fungi, diseases and weather changes.

Unbeknownst to the honeybee, its natural behavior plays a key role in providing the world’s food supply, especially fruits, nuts, flowers and vegetables.

In California, the economy is particularly dependent on the honeybee. Their pollination increases the value of the state’s crops by about $15 billion, a profit for which California employs 1.2 million bee colonies-around half of the country’s hives.

California Senator Barbara Boxer spoke on the topic during a 2007 speech introducing The Pollinator Protection Act.

“California’s almond crop alone is worth $2 billion per year and requires nearly one-half of all the honeybees in the country,” Senator Boxer said, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The future of that crop and other important crops, such as
avocados, apples, berries and soybeans, is in jeopardy if there aren’t enough bees to pollinate them for harvest,” Senator Boxer said.

The Pollinator Protection Research Act urged California to put forward $89 million for more research and grants over five years to help work toward a reversal of the bee decline.

Because of the great impact honeybees have on our dinner plates, desserts and economy, the honeybee crisis has gained much attention.

The ice cream brand H„agen-Dazs began the “H„agen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees” campaign because many of their ingredients, such as nuts and fruits, rely on honeybee pollination.

The brand released specially- packaged pints of ice cream, some with special flavors such as Vanilla Honey Bee. The package has a few messages that call attention to the mysterious disappearance of one of H„agen-Dazs’ biggest helpers, and directs the consumer to a Web site they created, They are also raising money for further research on the cause of honeybee deaths.

According to the University of California Davis Web site, UC Davis is now offering a one-year H„agen-Dazs Post-doctoral Research Fellowship in Honeybee Biology at their Honeybee Research Facility. But even these researchers are stumped by what causes CCD.

“We don’t know any more than we did last year,” said Eric Mussen, a bee specialist at UC Davis. “There is no way to differentiate the colonies that are healthy and the ones that aren’t.”

Scientists at UC Davis’ Honeybee Research Facility are working to create a new strain of the insect, Apis mellifera carnica-a subspecies of the western honeybee. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, they are creating the strain in hopes of finding a way to improve the honeybee’s ability to pollinate crops, and slow or stop CCD from invading hives.

Some local businesses that rely on honeybee pollination are also supporting the honeybee’s cause.

“It has been on our radar for some time that bee populations are declining,” said Sara Hart Weihmann, co-owner of All Edibles, a landscaping company devoted to edible garden installation in the Bay Area.

“This threatens the integrity of the very ecosystems we are trying to support with our business.”

Between planting fruit trees, vegetables, berries and herbs in their clients’ gardens, Weihmann said All Edibles tries to stress the importance of bees and their role in fertilization.

“There are a few ways the pollination process can be mimicked by humans and other species,” Weihmann said. “But ultimately nothing is as mutually beneficial for the species involved in comparison to the relationship between bees and flowers.”