The lost colonies: insurers who already protect farmers with crop insurance are expanding coverage to honeybee keepers, whose hives are being decimated by a mysterious disorder.
Scientists are working to solve the mystery behind Colony Collapse Disorder, the name the've given to the massive losses of honeybees sin 35 states since November 2006.
While the hives and bees are being studied, crop insurers are gearing up to offer beekeepers insurance protection for the first time. But the new programs will not protect keepers from losing bees due to CCD.
The Federal Crop Insurance Corp. met July 26th in Washington D.C., and agreed to extend the federal crop insurance program to beekeepers for perils such as drought in areas where their bees are pollinating.
"We never go out and measure the honey," said Brent Doane, director of external affairs and secretary of the board of the FCIC. "The insurance will be based on the rainfall and vegetation index."
Mark Brady, a beekeeper from Waxahachie, Texas, and president of the American Honey Producers Association. has been lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide insurance for bees for the past five years, long before Colony Collapse Disorder became an issue.
"We've always wanted insurance," Brady said. "I just always thought it was ironic that all the people we pollinate all the fruit, vegetable and nut people--they all have it, yet it wasn't available to us."
Beekeepers are affected by the weather just like crop farmers, and a bad drought can be devastating. "Without rain, we don't get the blooms. Without blooms, there's no nectar, and without nectar, there's no honey for us," Brady said.
Crop insurance also would cover growers who demonstrated good farming practice by hiring beekeepers with enough bees to pollinate their crops, but found the crops weren't pollinated due to Colony Collapse Disorder. It would not cover growers who failed to hire beekeepers, or who failed to hire keepers with enough bees.
The first policies aren't likely to be rolled out until the 2009 honey season.
Crop insurance is sold by Nov. 30 for the following year, but the FCIC isn't likely to be ready for the 2008 season due to information/technology and resource limitations, Doane said.
The product considered the board did not include coverage for Colony Collapse Disorder. "This Knot true multiperil crop insurance. It is certainly not a policy to address everything for them, but it address some of their concerns, of which drought was the primary concern," Doane said.
Brady said he hopes Congress, while it debates legislation to re-fired agricultural programs and subsidies for another five years, approves additional funds to study ways to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder. Because the issue could impact farm workers, California-based Self Insured Solutions, which manages four agricultural self-insured workers' comp groups, is lobbying the Golden State to investigate CCD.
"Commercial bee colonies are dying off at a rate of up to 60% in California," Joe Wheeler, vice president of Self Insured Solutions, said in a statement. He added that the disease is putting California's $6 billion in agricultural products at risk.
Bees have had a rough time in the past couple of decades. Before 1980, a loss of 10% of the bee population"would have been embarrassing," to a beekeeper, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania's acting state apiarist. But due to parasitic mites,"normal" losses in recent years have hovered around 16%. "Before the mites, you could be a 'bee-haver.' Now, you have to be a'bee-keeper'," he said.
And beekeepers have become very good at replacing bees. "You can't split a cow in half and have two cows, but you can split a colony in half and have two colonies," vanEngelsdorp said. Some beekeepers also have replaced lost bees by importing bees from Australia.
Even those beekeepers with major losses this year have been able to replace enough of their colonies to meet most of the pollination demand, he said. But scientists want to find out why the disorder is happening, so they can take steps to stop it.
"Our worry is these people who have lost so many hives have had to go into debt to replace those colonies. We are not sure they can survive two years of heavy losses and stay viable," vanEngelsdorp said."Our concern is not just for the migratory beekeepers (those who travel with their bees to pollinate crops) but for all the farmers who rely on that pollination. A single beekeeper can pollinate five or six different crops in a year."
In late 2006, beekeepers began to report that their bees were not returning to their hives. By February 2007, large commercial migratory beekeepers--who truck their bees to fruit and vegetable farms to pollinate the crops--reported losses ranging from 30% to 90% of their bee colonies. Some beekeepers feared the loss of nearly all of their colonies.
"Those large beekeepers are not easily replaced" vanEngelsdorp said. "You have to know bees. You have to be a mechanic, a woodworker. You have to know how to negotiate. There's a huge amount of skills required."
Symptoms of CCD include: sudden loss of the colony's adult bee population; hives without adults, but with a few young, healthy bees (a sign that the colony was strong shortly before the loss of adult bees); food reserves in the hive have not been robbed, despite other colonies in the area (a sign that other bees may be avoiding the dead colony); and little evidence of moth or beetle damage.
CCD is different from other bee afflictions in several ways. Most notably, unlike previous outbreaks of diseases or parasites that have attacked the bees, this time beekeepers aren't finding any dead or injured bees in the hives. The bees simply are not returning to them. Without dead bees to examine, it's been difficult for researchers to pinpoint why the bees have vanished. Making matters worse: Large numbers of bees have been lost very rapidly.
This is not the first time beekeepers have experienced mysterious losses. Scientific literature has recorded similar unidentified honeybee disappearances in the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1960s, according to the USDA. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know if the problems were caused by the same agents as today's CCD, the USDA said.
Also, in 1903, in the Cache Valley in Utah, 2000 colonies were lost to an unknown "disappearing disease" after a "hard winter and a cold spring," the USDA said. More recently, in 1995-96, Pennsylvania beekeepers lost 53% of their colonies without a specific identifiable cause.
The USDA's Agricultural Research Service has been investigating CCD and its possible causes. One of the tools that will help in this research is the recently sequenced honeybee genome, that should help scientists to better understand bees'basic biology This also should lead to better bee breeding and a better understanding of bee pests and pathogens and their impacts on bee health and colony collapse.
So far, scientists said possible causes for today's CCD include parasites, mites and disease; new or more virulent pathogens, such as a fungal disease; poor nutrition among adults bees; pesticide poisoning; stress on adult bees related to the transportation and confinement of bees; and chemical residue in the hives.
One factor that has been ruled out: cell phones. A small study done in Germany that looked at whether a particular type of base station for cordless phones could affect honeybee homing systems attracted a lot of attention, but the study has nothing to do with CCD, the USDA said.
While the scientists continue to work on the causes of CCD, vanEngelsdorp said it might be a combination of factors. "We think it might be a perfect storm, several factors coming together," he said.
* Colony Collapse Disorder, a widespread and mysterious bee disorder, is blamed for beekeepers losing 30% to 90% of their bee colonies in 35 states.
* The federal crop insurance program recently announced it would expand its coverage to provide some protection to beekeepers, but not for CCD.
* Every year honeybee colonies pollinate about $15 billion in U.S. crops, which many experts fear are jeopardized by CCD.
About Crop Insurance
The federal crop insurance program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, through the Federal Crop Insurance Corp.
The Risk Management Agency provides crop insurance to American farmers. Its mission is to promote, support and regulate sound risk management solutions to preserve and strengthen the economic stability of America's agricultural producers.
On the front end, the agency helps farmers pay their premiums through a subsidy. On the back end, the agency provides reinsurance for the 16 private companies that write crop insurance, taking on about half the risk. RMA develops and/or approves the premium rates, and all insurance must be actuarially sound. "We are an insurance program, not a grant program," said Shirley Pugh, director of public affairs for the FCIC. The goal of the program is to produce a loss ratio of 1.0--in other words, to break even. It's a goal that crop insurance frequently meets (see above chart). The insurers have three pools in which to place risk: a high risk pool, where the federal government takes on most of the risk; a commercial pool, where the private carriers can decide to carry all of the risk themselves or lay it off on their own reinsurers, with the federal government providing a small quota-share; and a development pool, which is a hybrid of the first two.
Crop Insurance Program
For fiscal year 2005
Number of Policies: 1.19 million
Premium Volume: $3.95 billion
Value of Insured Crops: $44.29 billion
Acres Insured: 246 million
Source: Federal Crop Insurance Corp.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Honeybee keepers in 35 states have reported cases of Colony Collapse Disorder as of June 2007. The disorder is different from most bee losses in that the bees are not found dead or sick; they just do not return to their hives.
Bees are the most "economically valuable pollinators of agriculture crops worldwide," Renee Johnson, an analyst in agriculture economics, said in a March 2007 Congressional Research Report.
One of every three bites of food eaten in the United States owes some thanks to a honeybee. It's estimated that bees pollinate about $15 billion in fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, forage crops, some field crops and speciality crops, according to a 2000 study by Cornell University.
In the United States, commercial migratory beekeepers traveling from state to state with their bees provide most of the pollination services to crop producers. There was a total of 17,000 beekeepers with 2.4 million bee colonies in 2002, according to the USDA, and more than 2 million of these colonies were owned by migratory beekeepers.
Crop Insurance Providers for 2008
Ace Property and Casualty Insurance Co. (Rain and Hail LLC) Johnston, Iowa
Agrinational Insurance Co. (Agriserve Inc.) Findlay, III.
American Agri-Business Insurance Co. (ARMtech Insurance Services Inc.) Lubbock, Texas
American Agricultural Insurance Co. (American Farm Bureau Insurance Services Inc.) Schaumburg, III.
Austin Mutual Insurance Co. (CGB Diversified Services) Jacksonville, Ill.
Clearwater Insurance Co. (Crop USA) Lewiston, Idaho
Country Mutual Insurance Co. Bloomington, Ill.
Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Company of Iowa West Des Moines, Iowa
Great American Insurance Co. Cincinnati, Ohio
NAU Country Insurance Co. Ramsey, Minn.
Producers Agriculture Insurance Co. Amarillo, Texas
Rural Community Insurance Co. (Rural Community Insurance Services)
Anoka, Minn, Stonington Insurance Co. (Agro National LLC) Council Bluffs, Iowa
Western Agricultural Insurance Co. (Crop 1) West Des Moines, Iowa
Westfield Insurance Co. (John Deere Risk Protection Inc.) Johnston, Iowa
XL Reinsurance America Inc. (Heartland Crop Insurance Inc.) Topeka, Kan.
Source: Federal Crop Insurance Corp.
Value of the Honeybee Researchers estimate that honeybees pollinate about one-third of the food eaten in the United States. Proportion of Value Attributed Crop Category (ranked by share Pollinators that to Honeybees of honeybee pollinator value) are Honeybees ($ millions) Alfalfa, hay and seed 60% 4,654.2 Apples 90% 1,352.3 Almonds 100% 959.2 Citrus 10%-90% 834.1 Cotton (lint and seed) 80% 857.7 Soybeans 50% 824.5 Onions 90% 661.7 Broccoli 90% 435.4 Carrots 90% 420.7 Sunflower 90% 409.9 Cantaloupe/honeydew 90% 350.9 Other fruits and nuts 10%-90% 1,633.4 Other vegetables/melons 10%-90% 1,099.2 Other field crops 20%-90% 70.4 Total -- $14,563.6 Source: Congressional Research Services; The Value of Honey Bees as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000 by R.A. Morse and N. W. Calderone, Cornell University