OSU to hire 2 honeybee researchers

July 2, 2008

honeybee photo by Lynn Ketchum

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University hopes to hire two research and Extension faculty members by September to examine the health of the state's honeybees and find out if any hives have been wiped out by a mysterious phenomenon that has caused losses in colonies throughout the country.

Honeybees are crucial pollinators for many of Oregon's crops, including blueberries, pears, cherries, apples and vegetable seeds.

The positions will be funded through a $215,000 emergency package approved last week by the Joint Legislative Emergency Board, which oversees budget requests when the state legislature is out of session. The money will also be used to increase the diagnostic capability at OSU's Insect ID Clinic and buy lab supplies for honeybee research. The funding is for 10 months, but the university hopes the legislature will renew funding in the 2009-11 budget for the Oregon University System.

OSU will conduct a nationwide search to fill the two new openings, said Stella Coakley, an associate dean at OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. One position is for a lead scientist who will identify and work to resolve problems facing honeybees in Oregon. Ideally, the candidate would be an entomologist with expertise in apiculture and experience with honeybee health issues, Coakley said.

The other position is a research and Extension assistant who would aid the lead scientist and OSU insect clinic entomologist, Jim Young. Young presently is funded to devote four hours a week to honeybee health issues, but with the new funding, he will spend 10 hours a week on this. He also plans to analyze random samples of honeybees from across the state to form a general assessment of the health of hives.

Oregon does not have a full-time expert who specializes in diagnosing problems facing honeybees. The Oregon Department of Agriculture used to employ a honeybee expert but eliminated that position in the 1990s amid budget cuts.

Young is the only OSU employee paid to handle issues involving the health of honeybees. On his own time, Professor Emeritus Michael Burgett answers the public's questions about bees but isn't paid to do so.

Burgett and agricultural economists from Montana State University and North Carolina State University received a grant this year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to calculate how many honeybee colonies have died in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho in 2007-08 and to assess the economic impact of these deaths on agriculture. Burgett said he expects the findings to be published in December or January.

Young oversees OSU Extension's Honey Bee Diagnostic Services, which was created this year in response to concern from farmers, apiculturists and the general public. The lab diagnoses non-viral diseases and pests, including American and European foulbrood, chalkbrood, stonebrood and tracheal mites.

In April, Young mailed a survey, which is voluntary and anonymous, to 120 beekeepers in Oregon to find out what diseases and pests were affecting their honeybees. About 30 have been returned, he said.

"The replies are so scattered that there does not appear to be any pattern," Young said.

He said that some reported cases of American and European foulbrood, varroa mites, and nosema. Three or four beekeepers thought their hives suffered from colony collapse disorder, but that doesn't mean they actually had the condition, Young said.

Colony collapse disorder occurs when adult honeybees disappear from a hive, either entirely or in large numbers. The phenomenon came to light in late 2006, when beekeepers on the East Coast began to see their honeybee colonies dwindle. A cause has not been determined, but one possible suspect is a virus. The disorder has since spread to other states and may now be present in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon.

Author: Tiffany Woods
Source: Stella Coakley