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Plight of the Bumblebee

Beekeepers in New England are keeping very close watch on their hives this summer. They're worried an unexplained illness that's killed millions of bees in other regions will hit here next.

The sickness is called "Colony Collapse Disorder" and it's been disastrous in the West. Fear of it coming to Massachusetts has increased the cost of renting bees for pollinating crops, such as cranberries, and it's worrying hobby beekeepers as well. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

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WESLEY CARD: This is Route 58. Route 28 is known as the cranberry highway, I call this the other cranberry highway.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Wesley Card is driving 80 million bees to a farm in Middleboro. He and his family raise bees in Billerica, truck them around the country and rent them to farmers to pollinate their crops.

CARD: You can see he has got a pretty nice looking bloom out.

BRADY-MYEROV: This week is a critical time for the cranberry crop in Massachusetts. The delicate white flowers bloom and need pollination so they'll turn into deep red cranberries. But that could be threatened by a disease already killing bees in other states.

WESLEY CARD: We have a condition with the bees that is yet to be understood; therefore our approach is to do what we know we can do as beekeepers to reduce other risks, known risks.

BRADY-MYEROV: Such as the varroa mite which was wiping out colonies last year. Commercial beekeepers are also feeding the bees a corn syrup and water mixture to keep them healthy. Scientists don't know what's causing the colony collapse disorder or how it's spread. Bees buzz off from their hive and don't return. The theories range from stress and a poor diet, to low levels of pesticides or global warming. It was first identified last year in California. So far, Card's hives have been healthy. He takes the top off one.

CARD: This is the main part of the nest, the inside. All of this here is baby bees right there you can see one that's chewing its way out. It's a newborn bee.

BRADY-MYEROV: Massachusetts is the second largest producer of cranberries in the country and bees are critical to the industry's survival, as they are to apples, blueberries and other fruits. The State Department of Agricultural Resources says there have been no confirmed cases of colony collapse disorder here. But this doesn't comfort farmers, says Brain Wick with the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

BRIAN WICK: It's a concern. If they don't have the hives the crops are going to be in trouble. So it's pretty much wait and see. We're trying to stay abreast of it but it's definitely on the minds of growers.

BRADY-MYEROV: Growers need up to two hives of bees per acre to pollinate their cranberries. This year the cost of one hive has gone up 16%, in part because of the precautions against colony collapse and the high cost of fuel.

The disorder is also worrying backyard beekeepers such as Adam Sweeting in Somerville. When I visited him last year to chronicle his year of beekeeping, his new colony didn't produce enough honey to fill even one glass bottle for his cabinet. This year, he's hoping for a better return.

ADAM SWEETING: They seemed to do well. I was worried as everybody else was about the vanishing bees. But they are out and about and seem healthy so whatever is affecting bees hasn't reaching Somerville at least.

BRADY-MYEROV: Adam pries off the top of his hive, and says this year looks promising.

SWEETING: And we're starting to see the semi circle that we're looking for of the honey in here. We are definitely doing well.

BRADY-MYEROV: Adam knows bees are crucial to keeping the ecosystem in balance. He's doing his part with one hive in his backyard. And cranberry growers on Cape Cod are learning how they can rely less on commercial hives by boosting the wild bee population in rural areas.

BRIAN WICK: What we're doing is trying help with native pollinators even though they plan a small role.

BRADY-MYEROV: Brian Wick of the Cranberry Growers Association.

WICK: We're looking at one aspect of helping the situation out is if we can increase the native pollinators thru habitat and best management practices then that will help take some of the pressure off of a potential colony collapse disorder affecting cranberries.

BRADY-MYEROV: This summer an expert on native bees will teach cranberry farmers what they can plant to attract bees during the months when the bogs aren't blooming. Native bees will never replace the commercial hives, but they could help in a crisis with colony collapse disorder.

For WBUR, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This story was produced with help from WBUR's Kevin Donovan.

This program aired on June 27, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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