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Tracking the bee killer

Jeff Pettis (BSA ’82, MS ’85) has become a national news fixture since the honeybees began disappearing

When America’s 125 billion domesticated honeybees started dying in record numbers last year, Jeffery Pettis’ telephone started ringing.

Callers ranging from eager news reporters to frightened beekeepers in rural Iowa were asking what had caused the sudden die-off—and what could be done to stop it.
Jeff Pettis (right) and researcher William Wergin, both with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, look at pictures of honey bees and Varroa, a parasitic mite that plagues the bees.

For 52-year-old Pettis, the veteran entomologist who directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory in suburban Washington, D.C., the mysterious recent demise of millions of the nation’s honeybees has been a ticket to sudden —and sometimes exhausting—national media exposure.

“If I look a little tattered around the edges, it may be because so many people want simple answers for questions that are pretty complicated,” Pettis says. “We’ve been working hard to understand what’s behind the bee die-offs, but at this point, it’s still a mystery.”

As the research leader of a specialized team of bee researchers and the author of several authoritative bee studies, Pettis was a natural candidate to become the federal government’s point man for the scary-sounding phenomenon known as “Colony Collapse Disorder,” in which bees desert the hive and then die.

How bad is the problem? According to Pettis, 25-30 percent of the nation’s honeybees have vanished without a trace since 2004. “I don’t like to use the ‘crisis’ word,” he says, “but if this isn’t a crisis, I’d say we’re right on the cusp of one.”

Bees pollinate up to a third of our food crops, so the loss of the colonies is a threat to the nation’s food production, and ultimately its food supply.

“I’m still optimistic, because honeybees are remarkably resilient and they’ve come back from die-offs before,” Pettis says. “Right now, I’d speculate that the most likely cause of the deaths is a one-two punch. I think the bees were weakened by some agent—insecticides, maybe—and then attacked by parasites such as bee mites that took advantage of their weakened condition.”

When it comes to bees, Pettis knows his stuff. Raised on a farm near Dublin, Ga., he learned how important the bees are for pollinating many crops. Later at UGA, he studied pollinators with renowned scientist Alfred Dietz, then accompanied him to Brazil and Argentina to study Africanized honeybees.

“That type of bee can get aggressive, and when they get into your clothing, you tend to hop around a little bit,” Pettis says, chuckling. “But Al was a tough taskmaster, and he taught us never to let a few stings interrupt our research.”

Soon after leaving UGA to earn his Ph.D. at Texas A&M, Pettis says he became closely acquainted with another formidable insect. “I married a Yellow Jacket (his wife Marianne, a marine biologist, graduated from Georgia Tech) and we’ve been a house divided ever since.”

The parents of four boys, Jeff and Marianne spend their spare time hiking and boating. “We love to put our kayaks in the river,” says the upbeat Pettis, “but I haven’t had much time for it lately.”

“For those of us in the lab, finding out what’s wrong with our bee population—and then trying to fix it…has pretty much taken over our lives.”

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer based in Hastings, Mich.

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