Honey bees are dying off. A disease called colony collapse disorder, the cause of which is unknown, threatens extinction.

And if they're not here to pollinate, it could mean a crunch in the U.S. and world food supply.

Famine. Starvation. Some fear the worst.

But there is hope.

Recent observations at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville might just indicate that if the honey bee population does collapse, there are wild, native bees that might be able to do the job of the hard workers in honey-bee colonies.

It's all preliminary observation at this point, said tree fruit entomologist and bio-control specialist David Biddinger.

He's in the process of seeking grants to help fund further research.

"If the honey bee disappears," he asks, "what can we do to supplement the job it does, or replace it?"


The research center maintains acres and acres of fruit trees, much of it apples. Researchers try to mimic conditions on farms and at orchards while finding possible better ways to do things. They have several acres of organic apples in an experiment to see if it could be economically viable for farmers to grow apples this way.

They also have several orchards where less harsh pesticides and some organic methods are used.

In these acres, treated more tenderly than the generations of spraying and pesticides orchards saw before, Biddinger noticed some changes in the insect population.

Over the three or four years, he said, many bugs wiped out by traditional pesticides came back.

"We're finding stuff that no one's seen since before World War II," he said about the resurgence of some bees and insects.

Excited and talking fast, he pointed to a poster outside his office, showing some recent returnees to the research center's orchards. There were mites that eat another species of mite that feasts on growing apples. These can be a possible natural control over crop-endangering bugs.

He found tiny wasps, the size of a pencil tip. They burrow their way into the eggs of aphids that feast on apples, and can be another control.

And, of course, native bees. He's recorded between 75 and 80 species native to the area that have made a comeback in the orchards at the research center. Some of them have never been recorded here before. It's estimated there are between 500 and 600 native species in the state, and about 4,000 nationwide, many of which could potentially fill in for honey bees.

But there are complications

Honey bees are general pollinators, he said. They're attracted to just about anything. Native species, on the other hand, seem to prefer certain plants to others.

Local species are mainly specialists in what they pollinate, Biddinger said. Research would need to be done to see which species specializes in which plants and how effective they are at the job to take the place of the honey bee.

So Biddinger catches bees in simple, colorful picnic bowls of soapy water. He and his team document the new bees they find, and other potential pollinators they find, and research which is best at what.

What all the buzz is about

Scientists agree if pollinating bees died off, the U.S. food supply would be in critical danger. The problem first cropped up in 2004 when unexpected declines of bee populations were noticed. It was named Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006 as North American beekeepers lost about one third of their colonies.

Biddinger explained most honey bees were brought over from Europe, and are not native to the U.S. Those that have become wild have been steadily declining since the late 1940s. Being out of their natural habitat may just be catching up with them.

Some native bees, or alternative pollinators, might be more picky, but they're more efficient at what they do.

The Japanese orchard bee is not native, but when brought in to pollinate, 250 of them can do the job of 40,000 honey bees.

A few of the Japanese orchard bees have been found around the center, "a big surprise," Biddinger said.

The blue orchard bee, however, is a native and is similar to its Japanese counterpart. It has been found at the center's orchards. Though not quite as efficient, it still only takes 500 of them to do the job of 40,000 honey bees.

They're fairly frightening under a microscope. The blue orchard is furry and a lighter shade or royal blue. It has two enormous pinchers for a mouth.

Biddinger's lab is full of bees and other insects that can be possible honey-bee replacements. He has boxes of species of bees, arranged by Latin-named families. They're pinned to white foam, under glass, and tagged with tiny labels. He has vials of mini wasps, and samples of bees infected by mites.

The lab is a bug-geek's dream, he said.

But, there are still plenty of questions to answer. Which bees will be the best replacement pollinators? At what point in the season do they come out? Can colonies of them be kept like the honey bee? Will they be susceptible to the diseases affecting honey bees?

The research is under way.