In recognition of the crucial role that honey bees play in pollinating agricultural crops, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack celebrated Saturday, Aug. 22, as the first National Honey Bee Awareness Day.

Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables. At the same time, USDA is currently working to address challenges impacting U.S. honeybees, which could have a reverberating impact across the agricultural industry.

"Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem," Vilsack said. "Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder."

As early as October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives. While colony losses are not unexpected during winter weather, the magnitude of loss suffered by some beekeepers was highly unusual. This phenomenon, which currently does not have a recognizable underlying cause, has been termed colony collapse disorder. The main symptom is simply no or a low number of adult honey bees present, a live queen and no dead honey bees in the hive. Often there is still honey in the hive.

USDA is working with other federal agencies and other scientists around the country and around the world to find the causes of colony collapse disorder and to develop ways for beekeepers to respond to the problem. The four broad classes of potential causes include: pathogens; parasites; environmental stresses, which include pesticides; and management stresses, including nutrition problems, mainly from nectar or pollen dearth.

It is possible that this disease has appeared before. The scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances – in the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to colony collapse disorder, there is no way to know for sure if the problems were caused by the same agents.

Given the impact that colony collapse disorder could have on the agricultural industry, Congress legislated that USDA develop an annual report about its ongoing efforts on this subject as part of the 2008 farm bill.