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Honeybees passing virus to bumblebees

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THE RURAL BLOG

 A virus has led to a decline in the world population of the honeybee, a species that the agriculture industry relies on to pollinate 90 crops that generate $14 billion a year. Now a study published in the journal Nature finds that wild bumblebees are getting the virus from honeybees, leading to a steady decline in their population. This matters because bumblebees “provide a significant chunk of the world’s pollination of flowers and food, especially greenhouse tomatoes,” Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press. Bumblebees provide about “$3 billion worth of fruit and flower pollination in the United States.”

The study's author, Mark Brown of the University of London, wrote: “Wild populations of bumblebees appear to be in significant decline across Europe, North America, South America and also in Asia.” He said the study “confirmed that a major source of the decline was 'the spillover of parasites and pathogens and disease' from managed honeybee hives.”

The study, which tracked nearly 750 bees in 26 sites throughout Great Britain, and also examined captive bees to see how the disease spreads, found that the average life span of bumblebees was reduced to 15 days from 21 days, Borenstein writes. “And while honeybee hives have tens of thousands of workers and can afford to lose some, bumblebee hives only have hundreds at the most.” University of Illinois entomology professor May Berenbaum told Borenstein, “It’s like Wal-Mart versus a mom-and-pop store.”

Save the bees

The U.S. government is opening its pocketbook to help save the honeybee population. Dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota can qualify for about $3 million from the Department of Agriculture “to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants appealing to both bees and livestock,” M.L. Johnson reports for The Associated Press. “Farmers also can get help building fences, installing water tanks and making other changes that better enable them to move their animals from pasture to pasture so the vegetation doesn’t become worn down. The goal is to provide higher quality food for insects and animals.”

“Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of produce each year,” Johnson writes. But their population has been in decline in recent years because of a disorder that has wiped out around 50 percent of hives and a new virus that could be just as deadly. “The USDA hopes to stem those losses by providing more areas for bees to build up food stores and strength for winter.”

The five states were chosen because 65 percent of the nation's estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers “bring hives to the Upper Midwest in the summer for bees to gather nectar and pollen for food then truck them in the spring to California and other states to pollinate everything from almonds to apples to avocadoes,” Johnson writes. “Corn, soybean and other farmers can qualify for money to plant cover crops, which typically go in after the regular harvest and help improve soil health or to grow bee-friendly forage in borders and on the edges of fields.”