Friday, October 15, 2010

CCD cause found; Point, Counterpoint

Recently the New York Times ran an article detailing how the cause of colony collapse disorder had been discovered.  It is linked to a fungus and a virus.  The research paper can be found here.


In 2010 Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), again devastated honey bee colonies in the USA, indicating that the problem is neither diminishing nor has it been resolved. Many CCD investigations, using sensitive genome-based methods, have found small RNA bee viruses and the microsporidia, Nosema apis and N. ceranae in healthy and collapsing colonies alike with no single pathogen firmly linked to honey bee losses.


These findings implicate co-infection by IIV and Nosema with honey bee colony decline, giving credence to older research pointing to IIV, interacting with Nosema and mites, as probable cause of bee losses in the USA, Europe, and Asia. We next need to characterize the IIV and Nosema that we detected and develop management practices to reduce honey bee losses.
The Times distills it down to:
Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.

This is a very significant finding and will lead to developing new methods to deal with colony collapse.  Since a cause of CCD will give new avenues to deal specifically with the virus and/or the fungus.   My feeling though is, this can reduce CCD but the honeybee population has been on the decline since 1980 well before CCD.   If we get back to the pre-ccd downtrend in bee populations we will be out of the free-fall but still on the decline.   Mites, pesticides and other know viruses are still a lot to deal with.  Hopefully a diagnosis of CCD won't cause complacency and lack of research into what ails honeybees.

And now on the counterpoint side of the research:

Correlation is not causation  plus Follow the Money.

Fortune magazine was one of the first to expose that the explanation is does not fill all the holes in the ccd riddle though it does make for a nice packaged story to put on their front cover.

  Bromenshenk's study acknowledges that the research does not "clearly define" whether the concurrent virus and fungus, which were found in all the afflicted bee samples, is "a marker, a cause, or a consequence of CCD." It also notes uncertainty as to how, exactly, the combination kills the bees, and whether other factors like weather and bee digestion play a role. Scientists like Sass at NRDC believe the mystery is far from resolved: "We're even concerned that based on this, beekeepers will use more pesticides trying to treat these viruses," says Sass.
also conflicts of interests were brought up in the scope of the study which did not include pesticides as a contributor to CCD.  To use HIV as an example, the HIV virus itself doesn't kill people, it weakens the immune system making it susceptible to deadly diseases.   It is no stretch to think of pesticides as the same, reducing the immune systems of honeybee colonies.  What does strike me is that still the percent of hives lost in the hardest hit areas are agricultural not urban, suburban and organic operations i.e. areas where pesticides are used the most.  There can be other explanations than pesticides but testing for pesticide levels in the bees that succumbed would be more enlightening and make for a more robust study.

Not dealing with pesticides seems to stirred up some conflict of interest questions.  

The long list of possible suspects has included pests, viruses, fungi, and also pesticides, particularly so-called neonicotinoids, a class of neurotoxins that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. For years, their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG , has tangled with regulators and fended off lawsuits from angry beekeepers who allege that the pesticides have disoriented and ultimately killed their bees. The company has countered that, when used correctly, the pesticides pose little risk.
What the Times article did not explore -- nor did the study disclose -- was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
A study that points the cause of CCD toward a virus and fungus is definitely less controversial with heavily monied interests like pharma companies than pointing to pesticides.  Viruses don't file lawsuits. 

The research still continues hopefully a New York Times article won't sway public thought that we now know what we need to make headway against CCD and lose public pressure to investigate agricultural methods and how interconnected society and agriculture are.  Many people still need to be reminded that our food doesn't come from stores but from farms. 

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