Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009 | Witness the yellow- and black-striped swarm buzzing around Daren Eiri as he works, and you wouldn’t think honeybees are in short supply. Dozens of fuzzy, winged insects blanket a grapefruit-sized glass dish in Eiri’s hand one warm afternoon at UCSD’s Biology Field Station.
“I used to hate doing this,” said Eiri, a University of California, San Diego graduate student, who at the moment is a perch for honeybees occasionally landing to lick sugar from his skin. “When they’re feeding I’m pretty sure they’re only concerned with food.” Eiri puts a squat cup of sweet liquid on top of the plate and sets the feeder inside a wooden tunnel.
But this bee-rich environment is deceptive: Eiri and the James Nieh Bee Lab at UCSD are researching a serious but poorly understood phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Despite the bees flying like popcorn up and down Eiri’s carefully constructed passageway, these pollinators are perishing at an unprecedented rate in the United States and the world.
“[Bees] have a finely tuned and actually amazing navigation system,” said Nieh, an associate biology professor at UCSD. “When you think about the size of a bee compared to a size of a human, it would be like you were to walk or run somewhere for hundreds of miles and yet be able to go back precisely to your house without any trouble at all.”
However, this navigation system appears to have gone haywire in an alarming number of European honeybees. They simply aren’t returning to their nests, often leaving the queen, a few infants and a seemingly normal comb of honey. Since 2006, nearly a third of all hives worldwide have come up empty.
If the trend continues, we won’t have enough bees to pollinate many of our most popular fruits, vegetables and nuts, researchers say. Some 85 commercial crops — things like avocados and asparagus, peanuts and peaches — depend on honeybee pollination.