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The mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which has led to the loss of millions of bees and in a worst-case scenario could be a threat to the food chain that humans depend on for life, has made its way to Utah.
Gary Dutson is being confronted by the malady firsthand. He has had to sell off 500 acres of farmland that's been in his family for two generations - largely because he's lost so many of his honeybees.
Dutson, who lives outside Delta in eastern Utah, had built up his bee operation to 4,000 hives by last fall when colonies began dying off for no apparent reason. Within months, he lost half his bees in an inexplicable disaster not seen since his father began beekeeping more than 70 years ago.
Until recently, Utah beekeepers seemed to be dodging the mysterious ailment, which has been killing off honeybees in other parts of the nation for the past two years. In 2007 alone, beekeepers lost 30 percent of the 2.5 million managed colonies to diseases, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
So far, about the only agreement on this calamity is its name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is evident when adult bees abandon their hive. To make matters worse, it comes at a time when America's bees were already in trouble.
Even before the disorder struck, bee shortages nationwide had been so severe because of attacks by mites and assorted viruses that colonies were brought in from Mexico and Canada for pollination - for the first time since 1922. Without bees, about 90 percent of the nation's food crops could not be pollinated.
The mysterious disorder afflicting honeybees in Utah and 34 other states was first detected along the East Coast in fall 2006. By that year's end, beekeepers on the West Coast also began to report unprecedented losses.
"It's depressing, and I'm an upbeat kind of guy," said Dutson, who also is the Millard County bee inspector. "We've still got some good bees, but it'll cost $130,000 to replace the ones I've lost."
As other commercial beekeepers do, Dutson rents out his bees to help pollinate California almond trees. He expects his hives back in Utah soon in order to begin pollinating orchards in 10 Utah counties.
Dutson has enough bees to take care of Utah commitments this year, but if he sustains another big loss, he might have to think about getting out of the business.
"We've never had these kinds of losses since my father started the business in 1935," he said. "And it's not just me, other people are having heavy losses, too."
At least one entomologist worries that transporting the bees from state to state might be putting undue stress on the insects, even though hives have been rented out for years.
"Shipping these things across the country - that's not the way that honeybees have evolved, so we're really changing and manipulating these colonies quite a bit to suit our needs," said Jon Lundgren, an entomologist in Brookings, S.D.
"It's necessary if we want cheap almonds and other fresh produce, but on the flip side, by the changing agricultural landscape - both in terms of the actual landscape itself and how we approach agriculture - there's probably any number of factors that are ultimately involved in what we're seeing with CCD right now."
Without answers and a remedy, the financial impact will extend beyond the beekeeping business to the dinner table, said Heath Bermel, president of the Beekeepers Association in South Dakota, one of the nation's top honey-producing states and home to more colonies than just about anywhere else.
"It's going to hurt everything. People at the grocery store are going to see significant increases in their grocery bill," he said.
Unlike farmers who lose crops or livestock when a disaster strikes, the nation's beekeepers are not compensated for their losses.
Delta beekeeper Roger Stephenson, who once had about 1,800 hives, puts his losses at up to 30 percent. On top of that, he also lost money from pollination rental fees and honey sales.
"I don't know if we can pinpoint the cause of our loses," said Stephenson. "It could be varroa mites or viruses that come with the mites. We're hoping [researchers] can figure out what's going on."
So far, scientists have not pinpointed any underlying cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is focusing on pathogens, parasites, environmental stresses and management practices, such as poor nutrition. Whatever the cause or causes, the result is that a lot of stress is being put on bees.
The department has earmarked money for research in solving the disorder because it says at least one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants.
"It's very serious," said Bermel. "There's a lot of beekeepers all over the U.S. who are losing hives."
Cache County beekeeper Darren Cox has lost 270 hives, possibly from the disorder, he said in an e-mail from California, where his bees were pollinating almond orchards. But he attributed even greater losses - 1,000 hives - to old-fashioned, indiscriminate spraying by irresponsible property owners in his home state.
It wasn't until 2006 that Utah regulators agreed to comply with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, enacted by Congress in 1947 to control the sale and use of pesticides.
Beekeepers fear that some property owners are not aware that the Utah rule allowing them to use "pesticides known to be harmful to honeybees" has been overturned. Until summer 2006, Utah landowners could spray toxic chemicals even during daylight hours when bees pollinate crops and plants. Now, anyone spraying must carefully follow label instructions - which have the force of law.
Beekeepers also are continuing to struggle with infestations of non-native varroa mites, which have grown resistant to chemical treatments. The eight-legged parasites are infecting hives worldwide, feeding on larvae, pupae and adult bees, weakening and sometimes killing off entire colonies.
On a broader scale, long-term declines in honeybees and other pollinators threaten the nation's food crops and raise the risk of plant extinction, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Also in potential peril are wild bumblebees, which have been hurt by non-native parasites, and the bat population in which losses have been attributed to the destruction of cave roosts.
But it is the honeybee, responsible for 80 percent of all pollination, that has experts most worried. Even before the latest malady, rates of bee die-offs since 1989 have been so severe that managed honeybees could cease to exist by 2035, May Berenbaum, chair of the Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America, said in testimony last year before a U.S. House subcommittee.
In Utah, there are so few honeybees that it's more likely pollinators along the Wasatch Front have come from hives maintained by backyard hobbyists than commercial beekeepers. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food pegs the number of one of Utah's most beloved symbols at 23,000 hives - compared with 47,000 colonies in 1992.