Scientists Find Likely Cause of Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder [Updated with Dissenting Opinion!]

Oct 15, 2010 at 11:50 am
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The New York Times reports that scientists from the University of Montana and the U.S. Army have identified the likely cause of colony collapse disorder, which is blamed for destroying as much as 40% of the country's honeybee population since 2006.
A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One.

Exactly how that combination kills bees remains uncertain, the scientists said -- a subject for the next round of research. But there are solid clues: both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised.
For background, read "Buzzkill," a 2007 Riverfront Times feature article by then-staff writer Malcolm Gay exploring the onset of colony collapse disorder and the immeasurable impact that honeybees have on agriculture.

The experts interviewed in Gay's article provided a wide range of possible causes for colony collapse disorder, from what seems to be the case (an unknown pathogen) to the usual "bad guys" (pesticides) to the paranoid (solar flares and cell phones) to the just plain absurd (Kevin Federline).

Update: (Friday, 10.15, 11:50 a.m.) Turns out there is more to this study than meets the eye. After the jump, an article questioning the motives of one of the scientists behind the study.

A fascinating article by Katherine Eban in Fortune (via Civil Eats) begins by noting that, prior to the Times article, one of the prime suspects in colony collapse disorder was the use of certain pesticides, especially a class of neurotoxins called neonicotinoids. Eban then notes that Bayer Crop Science is a leading manufacturer of neonicotinoids. Why is this significant?
What the Times article did not explore -- nor did the study disclose -- was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
Bromenshenk defends his work to Eban. However, Eban raises the possibility that the virus/fungus combo is another symptom of colony collapse disorder, rather than its cause.
Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the health group at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that while the Bromenshenk/Army study is interesting, it fails to ask the underlying question "Why are colonies dying? Is it because they're getting weak? People who have HIV don't die of HIV. They die of other diseases they get because their immune systems are knocked off, making them more susceptible." In other words, pesticides could weaken the bees -- and then the virus/fungus combination finishes them off. That notion, however, is not explored in the new study.
I suspect we haven't heard the last of this issue.