Bee feed tested for pet food taints

| Friday, May 18, 2007

Federal scientists are researching whether the same industrial chemicals blamed for sickening and killing thousands of pets are responsible for decimating the honeybee population.

No link has been found, but researchers at the Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory and the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine are testing commercial bee feed for melamine-related compounds and doing feed tests on honeybees.

"I was curious enough and wanted to be complete enough that I thought it was worth doing," Jeffery Pettis, the bee lab's research leader, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Thursday.

Honeybees in the United States began dying off in unprecedented numbers late last year, threatening the nation's human food supply, a third of which is dependent on bee pollination. A quarter of the nation's 2.4 million honeybee colonies died from what scientists dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder.

Early this year, cats and dogs fell critically ill with kidney disease, prompting a widespread pet food recall of more than 150 brands since March 16. Melamine, a chemical used in plastics, and cyanuric acid, used in pool chlorination, were found in the foods and in the infected animals' urine and kidneys.

That investigation snowballed to include much of the human food supply last month, when federal officials discovered animal and fish feed contained tainted ingredients. They found melamine in hog urine and learned some Chinese businesses routinely added industrial chemicals to products for years.

Melamine and cyanuric acid falsely elevate protein levels, making ingredients appear more nutritious than they are.

Since some commercial bee feeds are protein-based, using ingredients like brewer's yeast and soy flour, the possibility that melamine could be causing the unexplained bee die-off is worth investigating, Pettis said.

However, he said he does not believe that melamine or anything about the bees' diets ultimately will be linked to what is killing them.

"Our commercially available diets contain protein in them, so it's not out of the question," he said.

The Bee Research Laboratory is conducting more than 20 cage studies, each with about 20 bees, feeding them exclusive diets of various commercially made bee feeds manufactured over the past few years to see the effects, he said. Because the information is considered proprietary, officials do not know all the ingredients, he said.

If any feed is contaminated with melamine or related compounds, Pettis said, "I have no idea how it would act on the bees."

Ten days into the three-week trial, all the bees are still alive, he said.

Questions from FDA officials about a possible link prompted the study, Pettis said. His lab is sending samples of 10 to 20 commercial feeds to the FDA, which then will test them for melamine, cyanuric acid and their byproducts, he said.

Two Penn State University researchers -- Maryann Frazier, a honeybee extension specialist, and entomology professor Diana Cox-Foster -- said ruling out a melamine connection to Colony Collapse Disorder is worthwhile.

"It is an interesting scenario," Frazier said. "I think it's a great thing that they're looking at it. I think the key to this is going to be ruling things out. ... There's nobody better to do that than them," she said of the USDA.

Cox-Foster said it is a good idea to screen the feed for those compounds, and it would be good to know how they affect bees. She and Pettis are co-directors of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, which includes university and federal investigators.

The leading theory is that an unidentified pathogen is killing bees weakened by another, unknown trigger, Pettis said.

Pettis, Frazier and Cox-Foster said beekeepers who lost colonies were surveyed about their operations and feeding practices. No common factors emerged.

Beekeepers generally need to provide supplemental feed to bees at certain times of the year, he said. One of those times could have been last fall, shortly before the honeybees began dying off, Pettis said.

Investigators do not believe honeybees in the United States are dying for the same reason as populations in Europe and Latin America but do not know if the bee problem is related to honeybee die-offs in 2004, the 1970s or the 1890s, Pettis said.

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