Back in 2006, researchers from the University of Florida described for the first time a cryptic phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, through which massive amounts of worker bees vanished.
The problem has since been documented around the world. Everyone from esteemed entomologists to armchair scientists to crazy conspiracy theorists have pondered what's wiping out the insects. But after six years of national and international research on the plight of bees, much remains to be elucidated.
But this week, Palm Beach-based BeesFree boldly announced a "scientific breakthrough [that] halts honeybee colony collapse disorder." Did a small company in South Florida really develop a concoction that staves off this ecological nightmare?
The purported solution, a product dubbed BeesVita Plus, is a feeding formulation for honey bees, not a drug. CEO David Todhunter says, "We put together naturally occurring organic compounds that will help strengthen a bee and its immune system so that it can fight off all these various stress elements."
Not everyone is as confident. James Ellis, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida, says his main concern with the company's claim is that there's no single known cause of colony collapse, and touting that a product can beat the disorder seems premature.
"CCD remains a mysterious phenomenon, but we know a lot more about bee health because of this phenomenon," Ellis says. "It's potentially a synergistic interaction among multiple stressors."
Ellis says pesticides, pathogens, management stress, parasites, natural stresses, and environmental stresses could all be causing or contributing to colony collapse.
As for BeesFree's claims that its product halts colony collapse, Ellis has his doubts, but he's not writing it off totally. His biggest holdup is that BeesFree hasn't provided any hard data showing that the feeding formulation does in fact make bees healthier and less prone to mass death. That doesn't mean it's not worth exploring, and Ellis is eager to see rigorous, scientific testing of the product that can withstand academic scrutiny get under way.
"Any possible development that would improve honeybee health warrants further investigation," Ellis says. "Everything needs to be investigated, and everything needs to be backed up by data. I'm optimistic that this group is moving in that direction"
Bees are big business in the Sunshine State, and a solution to colony collapse could be worth millions. Ellis is quick to point out that the number of registered beekeepers in Florida has soared in recent years. In 2006, when CCD was first reported, there were about 1,100 registered beekeepers in Florida. Nowadays there are more than 2,500.
A typical colony, Ellis says, has about 25,000 bees. Some colonies can have as few as 10,000 bees while others can have up to 40,000. An individual colony can produce 60 pounds to 80 pounds of honey per year. There are also the farmers who rely on colonies kept by beekeepers for pollinating crops.
Todhunter, BeesFree CEO, says a three-year study in Italy showed that bees fed the formula thrived. The company is working with authorities in Italy on further studies, as well as with Argentine scientists. It expects to have data from those studies later this year. BeesFree is in talks with U.S. researchers to carry out domestic studies, Todhunter says.
Although Todhunter at this point can't hand over hard figures or a published, peer-reviewed study proving the formulation is the remedy to colony collapse, he's confident the product will pass scientific muster as field trials move along and the product comes to market.
"One of the things we haven't announced," Todhunter tells New Times, "is that we intend to guarantee results for the product when we launch it in the U.S... I know that some in the industry could claim a guarantee is irrelevant, but the three-year test study gives us enough confidence that we'll replace people's bees if they die."
For now, it seems like it's just a lot of self-generated buzz around BeesFree. But should the product satisfy the demands of the larger scientific community, this Palm Beach company could make a world of difference.