A mysterious malady that is causing honeybees to disappear en masse from their hives in parts of North America and Europe may be linked to radiation from cellphones and other high-tech communications devices, a study by German researchers suggests.
While the theory has created a lot of buzz in the beekeeping world, apiarists say there could be any number of reasons why the bees are deserting their hives and presumably dying off in large numbers, including changing weather patterns and mite or other kinds of infestations.
What they do agree on is that whatever is causing the phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, it is playing havoc with the production of honey and other products from the hive.
And it is also threatening the growing of fruit and vegetable crops, which depend on bees for pollination.
The small study, led by Professor Jochen Kuhn of Landau University, suggests that radiation from widely used cellphones may mess up the bees' homing abilities by interfering with the neurological mechanisms that govern learning and memory.
It also appears to disrupt the insects' ability to communicate with each other.
To conduct the study, Prof. Kuhn placed cellphone handsets near hives and observed that radiation in the frequency range of 900 to 1800 megahertz caused the bees to avoid their homes.
But Brent Halsall, president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association, said there are a lot of notions about what's causing bee colonies to dissolve like honey in a hot cup of tea.
High-frequency electromagnetic radiation from cellphones could be a factor, he acknowledged, but so could many other influences.
"Everybody's got their own little pet theory, but it's really hard to say," Mr. Halsall said from his home just south of Ottawa, where he keeps about 200 hives.
"The bottom line for us as beekeepers is the industry in Ontario is already under a lot of stress because the bulk wholesale price of honey is below the cost of production."
There are about 10,000 beekeepers in Canada, operating a total of 600,000 honeybee colonies, the Canadian Honey Council says on its website.
The majority are commercially operated, with Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba producing 80 per cent of Canada's 154 million kilograms of honey annually.
It's been a tough winter for Ontario's 150 to 250 commercial apiarists, who have lost about 23,000 of their 76,000 hives.
Those lost hives, which at full capacity in summer house about 60,000 bees apiece, represent the loss of about $5-million worth of the industrious insects, he said.
"I think weather might be one of the big factors this year," Mr. Halsall said.
"We had a very warm winter until mid-January and then, bang, it got cold."
From what he's observed so far in his hives, he believes he's lost about half of his bees.
In some of his colonies, eggs had been laid and it appeared adult bees had been trying to keep the new brood alive in the face of the sudden drop in temperature.
"There was honey inches away, but they probably starved to death as they tried to protect the brood."
Still, he thinks that whatever the causes of honeybee deaths in Ontario, and likely in the rest of Canada, they are different from those decimating hives in the United States.
In at least 24 states, bees have been dying in droves, with some commercial apiarists reporting huge losses, the American Beekeeping Federation reports on its website.
"One lost 11,000 of his 13,000 colonies; another 700 of 900, another 2,500 of 3,500, another virtually all of his 10,000."
U.S. beekeepers estimate that more than one-quarter of their 2.4 billion colonies have been affected by CCD.
The American bee population had already been under threat in recent years from the varroa mite, a tiny parasite that devastated many keepers' hives and destroyed most wild honey bee populations.
While the varroa mite is also a problem in Canada, treatments to rid it from hives differ here compared with south of the border, and Mr. Halsall said his hives were virtually mite-free by the time winter arrived.
Still, he and some other keepers have had huge losses in their hives.
"The bottom line is: We've got a problem in Ontario. There's a lot less bees than we used to have and we don't know why."
"It could be many different factors that are causing the bees to die or all of them together are enough to cause the problem and we just have the right set of wrong circumstances coming together."