ITHACA -- Bayer CropScience's Bee Care Tour arrived in Nebraska on Monday with a bunch of live bees under glass to give some energy to an announcement that the company is about to break ground on a bee health center in Raleigh, N.C.

Unfortunately, efforts to generate some positive buzz about bees at the University of Nebraska's Research and Development Center also come at a time when death loss attributed to predator mites and other problems may hit 50 percent nationwide this spring.

"Losses of the current magnitude are unsustainable," Bayer's Robyn Kneen acknowledged in addressing an audience made up largely of Nebraska beekeepers, "and demonstrate a clear need to improve bee health."

Precipitous losses of pollinating insects also represent a clear threat to the development cycle of cucumbers, watermelons and the multibillion dollar almond industry in California, winter home for 90 percent of Nebraska bees.

It's less clear how well Bayer will be able to straddle an issue in which critics see its work on bee welfare as at odds with its prominence as a marketer of agricultural pesticides that contribute to death loss.

The latest focus of pesticide attention as a contributing factor is neonicotinoids, sold as seed coatings by Bayer and other companies and seen by some researchers as a contributing factor to "the mystery malady" of colony collapse.

Critics say insecticide-laden dust from the seed boxes on planting equipment is contaminating nearby areas and adding another element to bee death loss.

When sought out later Monday, NU bee expert Marion Ellis wasn't into pointing fingers at Bayer or other marketers of agricultural pesticides.

On the other hand, Ellis understands the company's efforts to be proactive about a problem.

"I think they can smell the coffee and the great public concern about pollinator losses -- which are very real," he said.

"As a company," Bayer's Kneen said, "we think it's important that we recognize the importance that honeybees have to agriculture."

But in an earlier interview at the bee tour event Monday, Bayer bee expert Richard Rogers brushed aside a New York Times article of March 28 that used the "mystery malady" description in reporting on a problem that has commercial beekeepers on edge.

"It's never been a mystery to me," Rogers said.

Varroa and tracheal mites, the mites' resistance to the chemicals used to treat them, and an array of virus incursions, including the nosema virus, are among the major problems.

The added strains on bees from being trucked back and forth between California and the Midwest every year also are taking a toll, Rogers said.

"There is no mystery -- period."

The recent show of interest by the Environmental Protection Agency in California's part of the problem is not aimed at neonicotinoid anxieties, Rogers said.

"They have to respond to concerns, because, this year, there are really high death losses," he said.

Ellis, another speaker at the bee tour event, said the dollar value of honeybees' pollination work has been estimated at more than $14 billion nationally per year.

One of the challenges that bees face in Nebraska and other major corn states is farmers' decisions to plow up pastures and alfalfa fields to plant more corn, Ellis said. That takes away flowering plants as bee food sources.

"Seven-dollar corn has had a huge effect on honeybee health," he said.

Even if pesticide carried in planter dust is another problem, Ellis said, that doesn't diminish the "fantastically better situation" that goes with the trend toward using seed coatings and away from earlier and much heavier spraying of bee-killing pesticides on crops during the growing season.

"To me, that's a fixable problem," he said of planter dust, "by having that dust properly adhered" to the seed surface.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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