America’s honeybees are disappearing. And the puns, inevitably, are flying. It’s a “loss that stings“, what’s the buzz?, etc.

But the wordplay belies a serious problem. Some beekeepers say they’ve lost up to 50% of their bees and with 22 US states now affected, there are concerns that the lack of little pollinators could seriously affect crop production – each year $US15 billion worth of crops like strawberries, almonds and pumpkins rely on honeybee pollination. And Pooh Bear might soon have to take out a mortgage to get his honey fix.

US researchers don’t know what’s actually causing bees to die, but they have a label for what’s happening – colony collapse disorder. It’s also called “disappearing disease”, because most adult honeybees just vanish from a hive, leaving the queen and some younger bees. “Dead adult bees aren’t found near the hive, they are just gone,” say reports. Presumably to the great big hive in the sky.

With An Inconvenient Truth running on repeat in people’s minds, climate change is a predictable conspiracy theory, but entomologists are suggesting other causes, like new chemicals or a soil fungus.

There is also some concern about a possible link with the disorder and a species of protozoan that was discovered in Asian bees (Apis ceranae) in 1996, known as Nosema ceranae, says CSIRO scientist Denis Anderson, a leading world specialist in bee pathology.

At first the pathogen was thought to be the Asian bee’s version of the European honeybee’s own disease, Nosema apis, which affects hives “year in year out” during spring before petering out. But then over the past two years the Western bees (Apis mellifera) started catching it too, in Taiwan, then Spain, Germany and Europe more widely – and dying in high numbers.

The Asian version was “something new on the scene” and it appeared to be deadly.

With the current American situation, it’s “all too early to make any solid conclusions”, says Anderson. So should Australian beekeepers be worried? The issue is certainly being discussed, he says, especially in light of the fact that honeybees are often imported into Australia. But as for starting quarantine checks for Nosema ceranae, such actions would need careful consideration. We don’t know yet, but the Asian pathogen might already be present in Australian bees, according to Anderson – in which case quarantining would be futile.

Peter Fray

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