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Israeli beekeepers and the Agriculture Ministry's Beekeeping Division are making plans for a possible outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that has resulted in the mysterious deaths of 2.4 billion bee colonies and 10 billion bees in the US, according to the American National Honey Board.
Citing Albert Einstein's saying to the effect that mankind would become extinct four years after honey bees disappeared from the face of the earth, Haim Efrat, head of the Beekeeping Division, said he'd rather sound the alarm than be complacent."I don't mind if I turn out to be wrong and I say it clearly: We have Colony Collapse Disorder here in Israel. Though we are not even close to the problem they face in the US and Canada, tomorrow morning we could wake up to a severe case of the phenomenon."
CCD was identified in the US last October. Variously called autumn collapse, May disease, spring dwindle, disappearing disease and fall dwindle disease, it was initially thought to be a seasonal disease. Honey bee colonies have died out in great numbers in US states such as Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and California, and in Canada, and in small numbers in India, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Taiwan.
Colony Collapse Disorder is characterized by sudden colony death, with a lack of adult bees in or near the hives. Honey and beebread (a brownish mixture of pollen and honey that is used by bees as food) are usually present and there is often evidence of recent brood rearing. In some cases, the queen and a small number of survivor bees may be present in the brood nest.
"Besides the threat to honey production, the bee is know to be the main pollinate insect in nature, and without its services, as much as third of the crops we consume might collapse as well - foods such as almonds, corn, wheat, avocado, watermelon, apples, pears, cherries, seeds and more," said Dan Weil, the honey and bees information manager at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, the biggest honey producer in Israel.
CCD's cause is unknown, but there are several suspects: the long-term use of insecticides; a reaction between beeswax and insecticides used against Varroa Destructor pest; a weakening in the bees' immune systems as a result of viruses; genetically engineered crops such as cotton and corn that produce a toxin called Bacillus Thuringiensis; and possible malnutrition in bees that are fed highly sugared "snacks."
Probably the most offbeat cause suggested is damage to the bees' orientation skills by cellular magnetic fields that make them lose their way back to their hives.
"Israel is ranked as one of the most dense countries in the world when it comes to cellular and magnetic fields, so if that was the case, we would be the first to be damaged by CCD," Weil said.
So far, Israel's honey and bees have suffered only slight damage. But beekeepers and the specialists at the Agriculture Ministry are worried. In recent years, they have reported a reduction of 25-30 percent in annual honey production. In addition, starting in the spring of 2005, there have been several reports of weakened beehives that displays symptoms compatible with CCD.
"Lately, there have been cases we find hard to explain," said Boaz Kanot, a commercial beekeeper from Moshav Avigdor in the South. "Beehives that seem perfectly healthy and normal don't manage to produce the same amount of honey as before. The common belief among the specialists and the beekeepers is that the beehives keep weakening due to the use of the insecticide against Varroa mites," Kanot said.
"Right now, we are concentrating on educating and guiding Israel's beekeepers. Every year, we provide them with direction on what treatments and medications to give to the bees, and when, and we demand more frequent visits to the beehives to prevent sudden surprises," Efrat said regarding efforts to prevent CCD from spreading in Israel.
"The Israeli honey system is quite different from the American one. It's much smaller and crowded - only 95,000 beehives on 7,000 square kilometers. Its annual revenue is around NIS 100 million, both from honey production and from pollination services for other agricultural crops. But above all, our system is much more organized," said Efrat.
"We are strict on cleaning and recycling the beeswax. Every year we melt the beeswax from the beehives and produce clean and new beeswax foundations on which we imprint cells from both sides. By doing this, we save a lot of the bees' energy. They don't have to built their honeycombs from scratch. This also helps keep the beehives and the honey clean from the remainders of toxins and insecticides the bees bring from the fields along with the flower nectar."
Although the American beekeepers' technology is much more advanced and its honey system is better funded, it lacks the uniformity and supervision of its Israeli counterpart. And replacing the beeswax foundations every year is not customary in the US.
The general assumption in Israel is that some sort of insecticide that is used in the US in great amounts caused the bees to lose their way back to their hives.
"Both we and the Americans use the same classic insecticide against the Varroa infestation. In the US it is also used to eliminate small hive beetles. This is a strong and efficient substance, and we don't yet know its implications for the long term. While we use it at half of the recommended dose only once a year, the Americans use it four to five times a year at its full dose each time," Efrat said. "I hope our assumption is right so that the threat is eliminated soon, but our guess is no better than any other guess," he said.