It’s one of the world’s most perplexing biological mysteries: tens of billions of bees have disappeared from hives in the United States over the past six months, and no one knows why.
Theories range from the outrageous –cell phone towers disorienting bees and intricate terrorist plots – to the highly technical, such as a specialized virus or parasite, or the effects of genetic engineering and agrochemicals.
What scientists know is this: Bees leave their hive, never to return. No dead bodies are found, no sick or drunken bees wandering about.
The problem has also affected countries in Europe, South and Central America including Guatemala.
Costa Rica, as yet, has emerged unscathed, according to biologists with the Center for Tropical Apiculture Studies at the National University (UNA).
“We are very fortunate that it has yet to show up here, but we are preparing for the possibility,” said Luis Gabriel Zamora, a microbiologist who specializes in bee ailments.
Zamora said the country’s biologists and apiculturists, or bee keepers, are closely monitoring the situation, looking for any indication of the syndrome, which is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
According to bee expert Johan van Veen, president of the National Chamber for the Promotion of Apiculture, U.S. scientists have formed an emergency commission to study the disorder, which has affected more than 25% of the 2.4 million hives there.
“No one has any idea what the problem is, so it’s very hard for us to prepare to fight against it,” explains van Veen, who said he’d yet to hear of any “report from a Costa Rican beekeeper of hives with symptoms of CCD.”
Van Veen, a scientist who came from his native Holland in 1990 to study tropical bees and help develop the apiculture industry in Costa Rica, said there are an estimated 350 to 400 beekeepers in the country, and a total of 29,000 hives – a tiny fraction of that found in the United States.
The industry, he said, took a major hit in 1985, when Africanized bees arrived in the country from Brazil.
“About 90% of beekeepers dropped out of the business, and it has yet to fully recover,” he said.
Despite a revival in apiculture, thanks to modern equipment and a better understanding of how to handle the more aggressive Africanized bees, van Veen said Costa Rica’s ravenous appetite for honey is fed largely by imports, mostly from El Salvador, and in smaller quantities from Nicaragua.
Regardless, he said bees still play a vital role in the pollination of some of Costa Rica’s most valuable crops. A collapse of bee populations in the country could be devastating to the export economy, he said.
“About a quarter of our hives are used for crop pollination, melon and watermelon being the most important,” he said, adding that raspberries, apples, avocados and even coffee also depend, at least in part, on bee pollination. Last year, Costa Rica exported more than $84 million worth of bee-pollinated melons, according to statistics from the Foreign Trade Ministry.
Van Veen hopes that the invasive Africanized bee, the same one that nearly destroyed the industry 20 years ago, may someday become the country’s savior.
“Our studies have shown that Africanized bees are far more resistant to sickness than other bees,” he said.
For now, say van Veen and Zamora, Costa Rica remains a safe haven for bees, but until more is known, all they can do is hope, monitor and wait.
“This news has had one positive effect. It has brought bees into the public eye –which is important,’” said Zamora.