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Clue found to missing bees

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Kai Ryssdal: You might not immediately think of them this way, but honeybees are one of the most important live-stock breeds we have. Bees pollinate crops worth billions of dollars. But there’s a problem: colonies that commercial beekeepers truck around the country to pollinate apples and almonds and blueberries have been disappearing.

Today, scientists fingered a virus that may be a cause of what’s called colony collapse disorder. And as it happens, we have exactly the right reporter for this story. Our resident beekeeper from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer.

Helen Palmer: Listen:

[Buzzing of bees]

That’s the sound of the two beehives on my back deck. Hobby beekeepers like me haven’t faced colony collapse disorder. Experts think commercial hives may be more stressed, because they’re frequently on the move.

Columbia University’s Ian Lipkin has applied classic disease-finding techniques to the problem. He’s used genome analysis to pinpoint differences between hives where the bees had vanished and healthy hives.

Ian Lipkin: The only agent that stood out as being different between the two was a virus recently described called IAPV, or Israel Acute Paralysis Virus.

Lipkin says IAPV probably isn’t the only cause. It may be just another stressor, along with varroa mites, diseases and the chemicals that treat them. He says it’s like people with HIV — they get sick with infections that don’t affect those with healthy immune systems.

Even if this virus is a cause, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s honeybee expert, Jeff Pettis, says there’s no medicine for it.

Jeff Pettis: The better route is to maintain healthy colonies and/or look for colonies that have natural resistance, some form of natural resistance.

Fortunately, there seem to be some resistant colonies already in Israel.

Pettis says it’s very important to get a handle on the problem. Without bees pollinating our fruits, we’d have a very boring diet.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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