Agilent and the Vanishing Bees

Honeybee populations around the world have been declining for almost a decade.  And that trend has just taken a disturbing turn.

According to an annual survey, more than 40 percent of American honeybee colonies died over the past year, the second-highest annual loss in the past nine years.  What’s disturbing is that for the first time bee deaths peaked during the summer, when colonies normally thrive.

The concept of “Colony Collapse Disorder” was first coined in 2006, when beekeepers began reporting an unusual rate of hive loss.  While the rate of loss has fluctuated between 30 and 90 percent per year, it was actually improving until the latest findings.

Honeybees are considered a “keystone species,” meaning that their loss would cause a cascading loss of other species throughout the ecosystem.  Scientists estimate that one third of the human food supply depends on pollination by honeybees.  They are responsible for pollinating numerous fruit, nut, vegetable and field crops; including apples, almonds, onions and cotton.  “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth,” scientist Albert Einstein once declared, “Man would have only four years left to live.”

Scientists have identified three leading causes of CCD:

  • Parasites (such as Varroa mites)
  • Pesticides
  • Loss of habitat

Agilent has been instrumental in this research.

The parasitic Varroa mite is highly destructive to bees, causing deformed wing virus and other diseases.  While the western honeybee is vulnerable, the Asian honeybee has developed protective mechanisms.  Canadian scientists seeking to breed more resistant honeybees used an Agilent Bioanalyzer system and RNA 6000 Nano kits to identify biomarkers relevant to resistance.  French scientists used an Agilent Bioanalyzer system and QPCR Systems to study whether the nutrients in pollen can help treat malnourished and Varroa-affected bees.

Researchers are also trying to develop acaricides that can kill Varroa mites without harming the bees or their honey.  Agilent HPLCs can measure four different acaricides to ensure their safe use in beehives.  British scientists have also used an Agilent QuikChange mutagenesis kit to investigate anti-Varroa treatments at a proteomic and metabolomics level.

Greenpeace conducted an extensive study that examined bees from 12 European countries.  Researchers discovered residues from 53 different pesticides in more than 65 percent of pollen and honeycomb samples.  Pesticide mixtures can be even more toxic than the individual pesticides, causing increased stress and mortality in bee populations.  Agilent GC-MS/MS Triple-Quad and GC-MS MSD systems were used in the analysis.

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