WASHINGTON — A record 36 percent of U.S. commercial bee colonies have been lost to mysterious causes so far this year and worse losses may be yet to come, experts told a congressional panel Thursday.
The year's bee colony losses are about twice the usual seen following a typical winter, scientists say. Despite ambitious research efforts, the causes remain a mystery.
"We need results," pleaded California beekeeper Steve Godlin. "We need a unified effort by all."
Food prices could rise even more unless the mystery is solved, farmers and businessmen told a House Agriculture subcommittee.
"No bees, no crops," said North Carolina grower Robert Edwards.
About three-quarters of flowering plants rely on birds, bees and other pollinators to help them reproduce. Bee pollination is responsible for $15-billion annually in crop value.
The escalating campaign against what's generically called colony collapse disorder includes more state, federal and private funding for research. The House Appropriations Committee approved $780,000 Thursday for research on the disorder and $10-million for bee research. The money awaits approval by the full House and Senate.
Congress heard from farmers with troubled crops, from beekeepers struggling with lost hives, from frustrated researchers and even from corporate leaders worried about their own economic futures.
"What seemed to be an aberration has unfortunately turned into a full-fledged crisis," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, which convened the hearing.
The hearing is the second of its kind as part of a concerted strategy, elements of which have already borne fruit.
A five-year farm bill recently approved over President Bush's veto authorizes — but does not guarantee — $20-million in new funding for bee-related studies.
Private industry is also contributing. Haagen-Dazs recently pledged $250,000 for bee-related research at the University of California at Davis and Pennsylvania State University. Forty percent of the company's ice cream flavors — think vanilla swiss almond or cherry vanilla — depend in some fashion on honeybees.
The cause behind the disorder remains unknown. Possible explanations include pesticides; a new parasite or pathogen; and the combination of immune-suppressing stresses such as poor nutrition, limited or contaminated water supplies and the need to move bees long distances for pollination.