PULLMAN – WSU scientists and Pacific Northwest beekeepers are joining forces to find out what is causing the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that has wiped out thousands of hives throughout the region over the past several years.

Two large beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest – Eric Olson of Yakima and Tom Hamilton of Nampa, Idaho – have made donations as seed money for the research. Noyes Apiaries in New Plymouth, Idaho, the Idaho Honey Association and the Washington State Beekeepers Registration Fund also have made contributions. With those donations and dedicated funds from the WSU Agricultural Research Center, researchers will spend nearly $200,000 over the next two years to look at causes and possible treatments for the disease.

“Hive health is critically important to the bee industry in Washington, and bees are essential to pollinate many of our important crops,” said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean in the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and director of the Agricultural Research Center. “The financial partnership with the beekeepers will bolster our scientists’ work on this urgently important issue. This is a great start.”

The Washington State Beekeepers Association estimates overall statewide losses to the disease at between 35 percent and 50 percent in recent years. With eight of 10 of Washington’s most valuable crops – including apples – being “bee dependent,” Colony Collapse Disorder left unchecked could jeopardize the state’s agricultural economy.

Olson, who lost 4,000 hives worth approximately $1.2 million this spring, said investing in the research and paying for any treatment that is found will be well worth the expense. “The most expensive thing I have is a dead beehive,” he said.

Olson said the “smoking gun” for CCD appears to be Nosema ceranae, a microsporidium that attacks the bee’s ability to process food. WSU entomology professor Walter (Steve) Sheppard agrees that Nosema is a likely culprit. The men are working on a large-scale colony health survey that involves testing bees every 30 days for several major pests and pathogens. They started in January.

“We checked 24 hives in January, and it was stunning what we saw,” Olson said, describing a Nosema build-up in a majority of the bees sampled. He treated the hive with a mega-dose of the antibiotic fumagillin. “That should have caused the Nosema to either disappear or at least go down, but the levels went up,” he said.

Richard Zack, chair of the WSU department of entomology, said Colony Collapse Disorder is just the latest in a number of factors that have threatened the bee-keeping industry for many years.

“This is a long-term problem that started a number of years ago,” he said. “The people who can provide commercial pollinating services are disappearing, and if we solve this specific problem, another one will come along. The goal of this research is to build a program that can help the industry become sustainable again no matter what happens in terms of disease, nutrition and a thousand other factors.”