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What's the cause of bee colony collapse disorder and what's being done to fix it?
Cooperation is usually a good thing. It’s something we’ve all been encouraged to do since childhood. I’m pretty sure there’s even a Sesame Street song about it. But when it involves insects important to the future of our food supply, cooperation between a fungus and a virus is anything but positive.
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Bumble bee populations are down, in a
trend resembling the decline of the honey bee....
In 2006, apiarists began discovering honeybee hives that were suddenly empty, with maybe the queen and a few worker bees left. These deserted hives were left filled with resources, and no dead or dying bees were found nearby. Beekeepers were baffled. It seemed the bees just flew away and died. Such disappearances, now called colony collapse disorder (CCD), have gone on to affect 20 percent to 40 percent of hives in the United States.
Why do we care so much about the honeybees? Roughly a third of our food supply requires bees for pollination, which amounts to as much as $15 billion worth of value to the American farmer. Many of the nuts, fruits and vegetables we love – almonds, apples, blueberries, squashes – depend on the honeybee. If the bees keep disappearing, food producers could be in trouble.
The mystery of CCD, which has occurred in most of North America and in Europe, has yet to be solved. Many possible culprits have been examined, from viruses, mites and fungi to pesticide exposure and climate change, to no avail. One virus looked promising and a fungus was put forward, but both were found to be present in non-CCD hives as well as those that had collapsed.
Recently, a disparate group of scientists made great inroads into the mystery, through cooperation of their own. A group of U.S. Army scientists and bee experts from Montana put their heads together to see if they could identify a culprit.
The Army scientists work at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where they look for nonmedical ways to keep us safe from chemical and biological elements. This team, led by Charles H. Wick, is working on software to help protect soldiers in the field from anything biological. They use mass spectrometry to identify the proteins in a sample, then compare the findings to a database of viruses and other microscopic life-forms. Think of your brain as a database of smells. Even if someone hands you a piece of paper that looks nothing like a rose, you can still identify the smell of a rose by comparing the new data to what you’ve already catalogued. The mass spectrometer is your nose, and the database of microorganisms is your brain.
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