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Bee decline worries growers Beekeepers warn of disappearance from hives; some blame pesticides

In "Silent Spring," ecologist and writer Rachel Carson pondered a season without bird songs as she detailed an unintended consequence of pesticides: a serious decline in bird populations.

Today, beekeepers here and around the country are warning that a new spring season begins with a mysterious loss of bees.

Area beehive populations show a loss of 50 percent to 90 percent.

The effects go beyond the beekeepers, as area farmers depend on bees to pollinate their apples, pears, cherries, cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.

"It's going to be huge," said Peter Wagner of Wagner Farms in Sanborn. "It's going to be bigger than what everybody thinks. There aren't enough bees around locally."

At least eight beekeepers who are either located or operate in New York reported colony declines of at least 50 percent over the past year. Many colonies that survived were left severely weakened.

"Normally, you lose maybe 20 percent," said Bruce Fiegel of Appleton, owner of Fiegel Apiaries. "We were 80 percent this year."

Authorities have given the condition a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. It is characterized by the sudden absence of live bees from the hive, most vanishing without a trace.

"You open up these hives, and there's nothing in there," said beekeeper Jeff Rex of Palmyra, near Rochester.

Large bee die-offs have happened in the past but were usually geographically isolated and could be explained by one of the usual reasons: tiny mites that attack hives, stress related to poor nutrition or particularly adverse weather.

"It's never been quite as dramatic," said Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University professor who has done extensive research on the phenomenon. "It's quite mysterious. In the past, in most cases, we have been able to sort of figure out what's going on."

Although they admit nothing has been proven, some beekeepers and scientists point to a family of pesticides as a prime suspect.

"I think it's pesticide," said James E. Doan of the Rochester suburb of Hamlin, who operates Doan Family Farms, one of upstate New York's largest apiaries.

Doan, whose colony dropped from 4,300 hives last fall to 1,900 by this spring, pointed the finger at a pesticide called imidacloprid during testimony at a congressional subcommittee in March.

A member of a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinioids, the pesticide has been deemed toxic to honeybees by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The pesticide disorients bees, which could explain why the bees apparently die away from the hives where their lives are centered. The concern was strong enough for the French government to ban imidacloprid's use on sunflower seeds.

"As they found in France, bees are picking it up as pollen and bringing it back to the colony and feeding it to the young," Doan said. "Once [they] go out on flights, they fly away and can't find their way back."

More and more crops are being treated with this pesticide, Doan said.

"Before, it was only used on corn," he said. "Today, it is used on everything from potatoes to apples to grapes. It's also used now on almonds. In Florida, we saw it used on oranges."

Bayer CropScience, which makes imidacloprid, denied any link between its product and the bee decline.

"Extensive field studies, both by Bayer CropScience and independent researchers, have reaffirmed that bee health is not impacted by imidacloprid," said spokesman Greg Coffey, who said that statement assumes the product is applied as directed.

Some experts were quick to say they weren't sure pesticide use was the reason.

"I think it's possible, but we certainly don't have the evidence," Penn State's Frazier said.

Troy Fore, president of the American Beekeeping Foundation, said that Doan is "not the only beekeeper who feels that way and that there's pretty strong anecdotal evidence but no scientific evidence yet."

Frazier discounted several potential causes that have been mentioned, including interference from cell phone towers and genetically modified foods.

Deborah Breth, who heads the Lake Ontario Fruit Program run by Cornell Cooperative Extension, mentioned a few other possibilities.

"It may be a virus," she said. "And it may be another disease."

Research continues, but Frazier said she tends to think that several factors contribute to the decline of bees.

"My thinking is a combination of stress and lack of nutrition," she said. "There's less forage, and the forage that is available, some of it is not high quality pollen to raise young with."

While experts work on finding out what's behind the disorder, beekeepers and growers are focusing on making sure they will be able to pollinate this year's crop of fruits and vegetables.

"I already called some [growers] up and told them I would not be able to do it," Fiegel said. "We had to cut back a little because I don't have the bees and they're hard to get."

Area beekeepers said they hope to be able to rebuild their hives in time for mid-May, when pollination efforts locally swing into gear.

Bees are not necessarily needed to pollinate, but they improve the quality of fruit and vegetables, Doan said.

Doan said he already has spent $200,000 trying to rebuild his hives, an investment that becomes much more nerve-racking given the uncertainty of what's happening to the bees.

"Without knowing exactly what the problem is, we could look at three months from now our bees collapsing again," he said.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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