FREDERIC, Wis., Jan. 17, 2012 — Alarms sounded across the nation when a university study reported a “deadly fly parasite” now threatens the lives of honeybees, making them act “zombie-like” and saying it’s “consistent” with Colony Collapse Disorder, which is thought to destroy bees around the world.
This report of the bees’ demise seems akin to Mark Twain hearing of his demise. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” said Twain.
Earlier this month researchers at San Francisco State University published a study declaring “widespread” attacks on the bees by the tiny deadly parasite fly, Apocephalus borealis, which “could threaten honey bee colonies throughout North America…and into regions of the world.” The three-year study published on PLoS ONE, an online peer-review source, even hailed the new plague as “evolutionary.”
The Associated Press and other news agencies in the US and Europe quickly broadcasted this discovery by John Hafernik, SFSU biology and entomology professor and his research team. And soon the world was abuzz with a new threat.
Anything threatening honeybees is of great concern to agriculture and the economy.
Nearly one-third of U.S. agriculture depends on the 2.4 million bee colonies for big-crop production, where bees annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops, a Cornell University study estimates.
So when danger strikes the bees or they’re taking an evolutionary step, alarms sound.
But here the bells may be tolling prematurely, despite a science claim and media frenzy. Government officials, leading bee experts and average beekeepers around the country say this strange discovery is not seen nationwide — but strangely only in the SFSU study. And some even question the veracity of the discovery itself.
“Do you like conspiracies?” said Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture, the largest national bee magazine. “This is all conjecture. I think there’s much to do about very little. But give it a year and we’ll see.”
State and county officials are equally surprised to hear of this discovery.
“The first time our agency heard about it was through media reports,” said Steve Lyle, director of public affairs with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
“It’s in my jurisdiction,” said Miguel Monroy, agricultural commissioner for the County of San Francisco. “Word I had of this fly was when I read it in the newspaper.”
The parasite fly is a long-time resident of California and a known nemesis to other bugs besides honeybees. “They’ve been known to infest or parasitize bumblebees for some time all over the country,” said Eric Mussen, California State bee specialist and professor at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not new. We’re aware of it. I don’t believe it’s a terribly important thing to honeybees as a whole.”
But the SFSU research boldly suggests this discovery is a marker “consistent” with the destructive CCD syndrome. Yet leading California bee experts say otherwise. “We don’t even consider that to be a primary one,” said Dr. Mussen. “That’s just a few bees that happen to unfortunately be parasitized. It’s not major as far as we know.”
And those who are in the know about bees don’t know about this problem.
“No, we’re not seeing anything unusual,” said Randy Oliver, editor of ScientificBeekeeping.com and beekeeper for 45 years who manages and researches about 1,000 hives in California. “I certainly haven’t seen this.” Oliver calls the panic “unwarranted.”
The recent fuss is over what happened several years ago. In 2008, Hafernik said he came to work and noticed something strange. “It was just an accidental find. I was coming into the biology building where I work every day and I noticed that there were a number of honeybees that were stranded and acting strangely in front of the building,” he said.
The bees were on the ground acting “zombie-like” and clustered in a light fixture. He took the bees to his office, put the critters in a vial and sealed it.
“I left them on my desk and forgot about them. Then I came back and found these fly larvae maggots coming out of the bees that had been on my desk for a week or ten days,” he said.
A closer examination in the lab revealed something new: the parasite fly had parasitized the honeybee, he said. Previously, this honor only went to bumblebees and wasps. He also monitored some hives around the Bay Area, where the study states 77 percent “were infected.” But two participant beekeepers said they never saw the parasite fly or their bees acting zombie-like and clustered in light fixtures.
The study cites South Dakota as another place where the parasite fly’s genetics were found in commercial-pollination hives. But again, state officials and beekeepers have not confirmed even the fly’s presence.
“This is the first time that we became aware of it,” said Robert Reiners, South Dakota state apiarist. “We never officially documented it or anything. It’s just what I’m reading in that paper that they released.”
The San Francisco researchers enlisted the help of a South Dakota commercial bee farmer, who supplied the university team with bee samples. But the supplier said he doubts a problem even exists. “We have never seen it, not in any of our bees,” said Richard Adee, owner of Adee Honey Farms, which manages 80,000 hives across several states. “That was just a sidebar that the guy had them sitting on his desk. I talked to scientists and they said, don’t you worry too much about it. It’s not a concern yet.”
The federal government estimates there are 80,000 American beekeepers coast to coast. And the government has yet to hear any reports from beekeepers telling of this abnormal behavior in bees. “We’ve done a number of surveys across the country over the past six to eight years,” said Jeffrey Pettis, research leader at the USDA. “So we haven’t seen it in the survey work we’ve done.”
And for federal officials, this research does not raise alarms. “We don’t see this issue as a threat,” said Dr. Pettis. “And linking it to CCD is probably a bit premature there.”
Despite the lack of eye-witness accounts, interest in this phenomenon remains. Hafernik said he’s received a “large number of emails” from beekeepers in the country reporting strange bee behavior. Yet no one’s reported seeing the parasite fly wreaking havoc on bees across North America. “Not yet. No,” he said.
It seems the lack of empirical evidence should quiet hysteria. But insect fear has run rampant before. “It’s kind of the stuff science fiction movies are made of,” said Marion Ellis, Extension Apiculture Specialist at the University of Nebraska and spokesman for the American Bee Federation.
“Something laying its eggs in you and another being growing inside of you, eating your brain. It does get your attention,” said Dr. Ellis. “The insect world has long provided food for the science fiction movie makers.”
But beyond conspiracies and horror films, there is a science consensus that this phenomenon bears watching. “It’s something we ought to look at,” said Ellis. “But I don’t think there’s a simple answer like a mutant fly that started infecting honeybees….I think the evidence is not very strong that it’s a wide-spread problem.”
And upon hearing that no other authority in the country could substantiate a credible attack on the bees by the parasite fly, Hafernik offered a new possibility.
“At this point it’s very hard to tell whether it’s something that’s going to be really important in terms of understanding what’s happening with bees,” he said. “Or whether it’s going to be kind of a sidebar.”
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