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Decline of the Pollinators: Honeybee Illnesses Spreading to Bumblebees

The plight of the honeybee is reaching epidemic levels. Pesticides have been pointed to as key contributors to their decline, but major pesticide manufacturers dismiss the charge, even though enough evidence exists for Europe to ban the neonicotinoid family of bees_on_sunflower_picpesticides (for at least three years).

Regardless of what is causing honeybees to develop mysterious illnesses like colony collapse disorder, the consequence is indisputable: honeybee populations around the world are in decline. And that's really bad news.

Fewer honeybees spells big trouble for our food supply—at least one-third of which depends on honeybees to pollinate. Everything from almonds to apples are the result of honeybee pollination. But it's not just honeybees who are in trouble. A recent study found bumblebees, who are also important pollinators, are now contracting deadly diseases from honeybees.

According to the Associate Press, a recent study found that bumblebees in the UK may be picking up infections off of flowers pollinated by honeybees. "The diseases are economically significant because the wild insects pollinate a large proportion of the world's crops."

summer_flowers_bees_pic"Wild populations of bumblebees appear to be in significant decline across Europe, North America, South America and also in Asia," Mark Brown of the University of London told the AP. His study, which is published in a recent issue of the journal Nature, "confirmed that a major source of the decline was ‘the spillover of parasites and pathogens and disease’ from managed honeybee hives."

Brown's research found that the situation for bumblebees is becoming critical. His was the first study to look at the problem on such a large scale, reports the AP. "[T]he team's research does not definitively prove the diseases are passed from honeybees to bumblebees, rather than the other way round. But the evidence points in that direction because virus levels and infection rates are higher in the honeybees," study co-author Matthias Furst of the University of London explained to the AP.

It's likely that bumblebees are getting these diseases after going to flowers infected honeybees have also visited. Bumblebees are also known to invade honeybee hives and steal nectar, which would expose them to the illnesses on a much larger scale. (Bumblebees, although larger than honeybees, don't produce as much honey.)

bumblebee_dandelion_flower_pollen_picAccording to the AP, the latest research shows "bumblebees are more severely affected by the diseases." The infections are shortening their life spans by as much as six days—a 30 percent decrease. "And while honeybee hives have tens of thousands of workers and can afford to lose some, bumblebee hives only have hundreds at the most."

Bumblebees aren't as valuable to the food industry as honeybees, which contribute about $20 billion worth of pollination just in the U.S. But at $3 billion worth of free pollination, bumblebees are certainly valuable to the nation's food supply.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

all photos by Andreas Krappweis

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