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Davis, California

Monday, August 2, 2021

Decline of the honeybee causes worry

Honeybees do more than sting you. Without them, you wouldn’t get to eat your favorite fruits, nuts and ice cream flavors. And due to a recent mysterious decline in honeybee colonies, you may actually be losing more than that.

Every one-third bite of food you eat is something that is due to pollination by bees, said Robbin Thorpe, professor emeritus of the department of entomology.

Honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion of crops annually.

“Honeybees are our prime agricultural pollinators,” Thorpe said. “We’re all affected. A lot of the foods we eat are going to increase in price.”

In Davis and the Yolo County, crops that are particularly affected are almonds, sunflowers and possibly cherries and prunes.

In many of the colonies, all the adult bees abandon the hive and leave behind the queen bee and a handful of very young bees, said Eric Mussen, apiculturist for the department of entomology. Colony Collapse Disorder is used to describe this phase among the honeybees, which takes place over a short period of a few days to a few weeks.

The causes behind CCD are unknown to researchers.

“They’re not starved to death,” he said. “Honey and pollen is there and the bees have got everything they need, but they left.”

CCD could be caused by a combination of several factors, said Sue Cobey, research associate for the department of entomology.

“New diseases, poor nutrition, pesticides in the environment and lack of foraging are some things that will break down the honeybees’ immunity,” Cobey said.

“Too many fungal or viral infections could send honeybees over the edge,” Mussen said. “There’s a myriad of infections out there.”

UCD researchers are still hoping to learn more about CCD and its causes. The task is made a little easier thanks to a $100,000 grant from Häagen-Dazs in February.

Häagen-Dazs has launched a campaign to save the bees, as honeybee pollination contributes to producing 40 percent of their ice cream flavors.

Some of their most popular flavors such as vanilla swiss almond and strawberry depend on ingredients reliant on honeybees.

The grant will be used toward rebuilding the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility and to hire a postdoctoral researcher. According to the department of entomology website, the facility has been an active bee research program for 76 years. It is the largest, most comprehensive state-supported apiculture facility in North America.

Although the program is still looking for the postdoctoral researcher, it has set up a contract to work with Michelle Flenniken, a researcher from the University of California, San Francisco.

UCD researchers are hoping that Flenniken will be able to provide insight into how viruses affect honeybees.

The previous research done in honeybee immunology, Mussen said, basically looked at the question of what happens when a honeybee is challenged with microbes, particularly bacteria and fungi.

“We were thinking that perhaps the viruses are more difficult things that are hurting the bees and we don’t know how honeybees respond to viruses,” he said.

Other ongoing honeybee research is being conducted by Cobey, a geneticist who maintains a stock of honeybees at UC Davis and is trying to increase the genetic diversity among the honeybee populations.

“We’re losing diversity and honeybee health is really dependent on diversity,” she said.

She will be going to Ireland and Turkey to obtain some semen to artificially inseminate the queen bee in Davis, Mussen said.

Although the causes of CCD may not be confirmed any time soon, Mussen said UCD researchers are working on a number of honeybee-related projects that will help protect the bees.

Consumers interested in helping to protect the honeybees can do so by supporting local beekeepers, donating money to the UC Davis Honeybee Research Fund or purchasing Häagen-Dazs’ honeybee-dependent flavors of ice cream, where proceeds will go to research.

For information on honeybees, CCD or how to you can help, go to helpthehoneybees.com.

 

THUY TRAN can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

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