Could free trade be killing the honeybees?

Researchers have found a potential culprit responsible for the deaths of millions of bees. Australia did it!

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 7, 2007 3:27AM (UTC)
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California almonds, imported Australian honeybees, an evil pathogen known to the world only as Israel acute paralysis virus, and the ever-popular varroa mite. What does it all add up to? Chapter 47 in "The Hunt for the Colony Collapse Disorder Murderer."

No question about it, the scientific investigation into the mysterious deaths of millions of bees in the U.S. and elsewhere earlier this year is the story that keeps on buzzing. Now comes a report in Science magazine announcing that a special CCD task force has fingered its first promising suspect.

Erik Stokstad reports:

The identification of a suspect is an important step, says Nicholas Calderone of Cornell University. "Before, we didn't even have circumstantial evidence."

The suspect is a pathogen called Israel acute paralysis virus (IAPV). A team of researchers reports online in Science this week that they found the virus in most of the affected colonies they tested, but in almost no healthy ones. If the virus proves to be the cause of CCD, it could have international economic implications, for the researchers point to Australia as a possible source. Since 2005, U.S. beekeepers, especially those struggling to keep up with the insatiable demand for almond pollination in California, have imported several million dollars' worth of bees from Australia. The researchers report that they have found IAPV in imported Australian bees.

However, there is by no means a consensus among the bee detectives. For one thing, Australia isn't experiencing outbreaks of CCD. One theory explaining this focuses on the possible role of varroa mite, a nasty little bug that is a great spreader of bee pathogens in the U.S., but is absent in Australia. Then again, Canada has varroa mites and imported Australian bees, but no CCD.

But never mind the quibblers. I always knew that California's insatiable demand for almond pollination would prove to be its downfall.

Well, actually, no. That's not true. I knew nothing of the sort. However, in my first venture into this hive of perplexity, back in February, I did suggest that "globalization" (in the form of cheap imported Chinese honey) was a likely culprit. Now we see that Australian imports may be the real villain. I may have gotten the plague vector wrong, but not the disease! Could one ask for a clearer case of international labor migration gone horribly awry?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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