ÔÇťAnother year of heavy losses of bees could be disastrous for the nation's supply of healthy, affordable food," a Clemson Extension bee specialist says.

"Honey bees have been gaining more respect for the role they play in food production in the United States," said Mike Hood, who also is president of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists.

Many food crops are heavily dependent on honey bees for pollination. About one third of our diet comes from vegetables, fruits, nuts and forage plants that are insect-pollinated and honey bees provide about 80 percent of this valuable service. Without honey bees and beekeepers to move colonies, U.S. food production would decline, he said.

Pollination by honey bees is estimated to be worth $14.6 billion annually in the United States. In South Carolina, cash farm receipts are estimated at $24 million for five commercially grown crops, including apples, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash and watermelons; all dependent on honey bees for pollination. That does not include several million dollars of home garden vegetables and fruits that are produced in the state.

But in the fall of 2006 some commercial beekeepers began losing 80 to 90 percent of their bee colonies.

No obvious explanation was apparent for the problem, which came to be called colony collapse disorder, or CCD, according to Hood.

The problem was reported by more beekeepers through the winter of 2007 and was soon brought to the attention of Congress. Hood thinks federal funds may be made available this year to conduct CCD research.

"Surveys of the beekeepers reporting CCD are ongoing and researchers will be following some of these operations closely to monitor bee health," said Hood. "Some likely candidates for the honey bee problem have been identified, including new bee diseases or microbes, pesticides used by man, genetically modified crops and stress as a result of many recent maladies, such as parasitic mites which were first discovered in the United States in the 1980s."

Even cell phone towers have been suspect, but this theory has not been taken seriously by honey bee scientists.

Hood noted that the recent CCD issue has taken a heavy toll on many U.S. commercial beekeeping operations, which had already been hit hard with higher production costs, parasitic mites and unfair honey imports.

"We simply cannot afford another disastrous year for the beekeeping industry," said Hood. We need a solid beekeeping industry to provide the essential pollination services that impact our supply of healthy and affordable food in the United States."

Most South Carolina beekeepers have reported normal over-wintering colony losses in the range of 20 percent this year, according to Hood.

"I'm certain we are not immune to the CCD problem in our state, so our beekeepers need to be diligent in their bee management this year and look out for signs of colony stress," said Hood.

An estimated 2,000 beekeepers in the state manage about 25,000 honey bee colonies.