California Literary Review

What’s Killing the Honeybees?

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November 4th, 2008 at 11:57 am

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honeybee

[Photo by da100fotos]

CLR INTERVIEW: Rowan Jacobsen is an environmental writer living in Vermont. His most recent book is Fruitless Fall, an investigation into the collapse of honeybee colonies throughout the world. Below is Rowan’s interview with the California Literary Review.

Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen
Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
by Rowan Jacobsen
Bloomsbury USA, 288 pp.

For those of us who weren’t paying close attention during biology class, would you give us an overview of flowers, fruit and the role of bees?

Flowers are the sexual organs of plants. Most contain both pollen (plant sperm) and ovaries. For a plant to reproduce, it needs to somehow transfer its pollen to the ovaries of another member of the same species. For hundreds of millions of years, plants used the wind to do this. It’s like Internet spam: send hundreds of millions of flyweight grains of pollen in all directions, hoping that just one or two finds its way by chance to the right ovary. Many plants, such as pine and birch trees and the dreaded ragweed, still use wind pollination.

But about a hundred million years ago, one class of plants hit upon a revolutionary idea: Why not use insects to transport the pollen instead of wind? That way, you can make much bigger, heavier, more sophisticated pollen packages. And you can make far fewer of them if you can rely on the insects to travel more or less directly to another flower of your species. The showy flowers we see all around us are the strategy for making that happen: They are designed to attract insects through form, color, and scent, and they have wells of nectar for the insects to drink when they visit. The insects swoop in for a few pints, get sticky pollen all over their hairy bodies, and inadvertently transfer some of this pollen to the next flower they visit. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. The fertilized seed becomes a fruit or nut.

Bees are the world’s pollination masters; they have developed sophisticated sensory apparatus for finding flowers, special bodies designed to collect and transport pollen, and complex social intelligence that allows them to share information and allocate their resources so that a single hive of honeybees can cross-pollinate 25 million flowers in a single day. A good bit of the flowering world (and the animals that rely on the fruits made by this flowering world) have come to depend on them.

Rowan Jacobsen

Rowan Jacobsen, author of Fruitless Fall

What is CCD? When did it start, and what is the current status of honeybee colonies throughout the world?

Colony Collapse Disorder first showed up in the fall of 2006, though there were a few signs of it in 2005. Honeybee populations, which had been slowly declining for decades, suddenly fell off a cliff. 31 percent of America’s honeybees died that winter, and another 36 percent died last winter. The situation is similar in most other developed countries. No one knows what is causing CCD, though there are a few leading suspects.

What would happen to us if honeybees were to completely die off?

More than 100 crops, about a third of the calories we eat, require cross-pollination by honeybees. The grain staples such as corn, rice, and oats are wind-pollinated, but most of the stuff that adds color to our plates and vitamins and antioxidants to our diets—apples, pears, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, plums, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, almonds, macadamia nuts, and so on—would disappear. Plants like lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and onions, which don’t make edible fruits but need to make seeds for next year’s supply, also rely on bees. Bees also cross-pollinate the forage crops, like alfalfa and clover, that are vital to many dairying and beef cattle operations. And don’t forget honey, of course.

What would be the effect on human civilization? Are we talking mass starvation?

No mass starvation, because the grains that make up the bulk of our diet are not at risk. (Wind-pollinated.) So we’d have corn, bread, oatmeal, etc. And certain fruits, such as grapes, are wind-pollinated or self-fertilizing. And then there’s human pollination, as they’re doing in China. (Take millions of peasants, hand them bundles of chicken feathers, and let them climb through the fruit trees, touching every flower with a bit of pollen from a bucket.) What we’d have is extraordinarily high prices for most of the fruits and vegetables that provide our vitamins and antioxidants, if they could be found at all. And the beef and dairy industry, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, is switching more and more away from natural forage to corn, even though corn makes cattle sick, because it’s cheaper to feed corn and administer antibiotics to sick cattle than it is to use nature pasture. So we’d still have a beef industry, though a freaky one.

But honeybees aren’t on the edge of going extinct. They are, however, on the edge of not being able to provide all the pollination we’ve asked of them.

We’ve read about two possible suspects causing CCD. To start, what do we know about the effect of cell phone towers on bees?

A red herring. This started with a German study of the effect upon bees of electromagnetic radiation produced by cordless phones. The researchers stuck the bases of cordless phones directly into beehives and turned them on. The hives with cordless phone bases in them didn’t prosper as much as the hives that didn’t have cordless bases, but this is kind of like saying “homes with industrial power plants in the living rooms didn’t do as well as normal homes.” The subject of this study then got mistranslated into English as “cell phones” and the media and Internet ran wild with it.

The other possibility that has gotten a lot of press is genetically modified crops…

Nope. There’s no correlation between CCD and areas of the country using lots of GMOs. Most GMO crops are not bee-pollinated anyway. In one study that I’ve seen, bees were forced to eat nothing but GMO corn pollen for thirty-five days, and they came out of the study in robust good health.

So based on your research, what do you think is the cause of CCD?

A new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids may well be involved. These pesticides have revolutionized the world of pesticides and are now the most popular on the planet. They are systemics—you coat seeds with them, then the pesticide manifests throughout the growing plant. It can’t be washed off. This is great for farmers, but terrible for bees that get their food from the flowers of the plant. Bee die-offs around the world seem to coincide somewhat with the introduction of neonicotinoids. Now France, Germany, and Italy have banned the chemicals to protect their honeybees.

But the situation is complicated. France first banned some neonicotinoids in 1999, and its bee populations have not improved significantly. And the U.S. maps of cases of CCD and use of neonicotinoids don’t align that well. A recent study of pesticide residues in beehives found 43 different pesticides present, with neonicotinoids down near the bottom. So the bigger conclusion is that we have soaked our landscape in toxic chemicals, many of which can interact to form even more toxic compounds, and there is absolutely no regulation or testing of this mixing. Most beekeepers and researchers I’ve spoken with believe pesticides are one factor, working in conjunction with introduced parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and quite possibly with deteriorating living conditions for bees. (Poor quality food, too many hours on the backs of flatbeds traveling to the next pollination job, etc.) Bees could handle one or two of these stressors, but not all of them.

honeybees on truck

On a Connecticut highway, bees being transported by truck for pollination.
[Photo by Emmett Pepper]

Are bees the only insect pollinators? Are other pollinators in trouble?

There are 4,000 species of bees in the United States alone, and thousands of other pollinators, such as flies, beetles, hummingbirds, and even bats. But only honeybees come in convenient, transportable boxes of 50,000 individuals. Our industrial system of agriculture depends on them, and will for the foreseeable future, though moving some of our eggs out of that one basket, and starting to work with other pollinators, is an excellent plan. Evidence is spotty, but it seems like the populations of most wild pollinators are declining, primarily due to habitat loss.

There’s an interesting character in your book named Kirk Webster. Would you tell us a little about him and explain how his philosophy might offer a solution to what’s ailing bees?

Two decades ago, honeybees faced a tremendous threat from the introduction of the varroa mite, an Asian parasite of honeybees. The mites infest hives, sinking fangs into the bees (especially the larvae and pupae), which introduces diseases and reduces their lifespans. To battle the mites, the beekeeping industry came up with some pesticides that could be introduced to the hives. It killed most of the mites, but it also sickened the bees. But beekeepers felt like they had no choice. Well, guess what? The surviving mites quickly developed pesticide-resistant offspring, and within a few short years the mites were virtually immune to the chemicals. Since then, beekeepers have raced to find new chemical cocktails to kill the mites.

Kirk Webster practices holistic beekeeping in Vermont. His specialty is queen breeding, so he wanted no part of the mite treatments, which destroy the fertility of drones (male bees) and queens. He understood that the more we used chemicals to try to treat bees’ ills, the less the bees were going to have to come up with their own solutions, which would be more sustainable (and cheaper!) in the long run. So he simply stopped using chemical treatments of any kind and let 90+ percent of his bees die. Then he took the few survivors, who happened to have some genetic resistance to the mites, and bred them together. Basically, he did to the mites exactly what the mites had done to the beekeepers. After the better part of a decade he had developed lines of bees with strong natural mite resistance. They also seemed to be more resilient toward other factors. They are supremely good survivors, and they are wildly in demand. And all Kirk had to do was go without income for a decade to get there! This is just one area where we can find the answers to problems within natural systems, or impose them from without, which is always a short-term fix.

If you were appointed the world’s “Honeybee Czar” what actions would you take to protect the honeybee?

I’d provide funding for research programs into breeding a more resilient bee. For decades the honeybee industry has been woefully underfunded. And I’d require much stricter testing of pesticides before the EPA approves them. You wouldn’t believe how rudimentary the current testing is. (It’s also all self-reported by the pesticide makers.) But one of the best worldwide things I could do would be to support the development of programs for people to develop industries for their native pollinators. Part of the problem is that we’ve put all our eggs in this one basket, which is never the way it was supposed to be. Many other types of bees make promising pollination partners, including the various bumblebees, the blue orchard bee, and the Asian honeybee. We need much more diversity and resilience in this particular system.

  • http://www.biobees.com Phil Chandler

    I absolutely agree that pesticides are largely to blame for the current woes of the honeybee. I would only add that Bayer should be forced to pay for the damage it has already done, not only to bees, but to all the other species of insects and birds and soil organisms that its toxic cra*p has poisoned.

  • http://www.abejas.org Luis

    Si, un conjunto de causas principalmente los agrotoxicos, neurosensoriales, como las abejas no vuelven a la colmena, esta muere por enfermedades oportunistas, los investigadores no hayan restos de estos pesticidas porque las abejas que han provocado el colapso nunca volvieron a su colmena y prevalece que han muerto por nosema, loque, virus etc. solo enfermedades oportunistas por la falta de abejas para desarrollar las funciones basicas de la colmena.

  • Dave Guenther

    Whats really scary is to lookup the two most common beekeeper applied
    chems and see how toxic they are to humans and the environment.

    http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/dienochlor-glyphosate/fluvalinate-ext.html

    http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/coumapho.htm

    These chemicals were authorized by the EPA under a section 18 emergency
    label 20 years ago! Its sad that we still have an emergency listing for
    these toxic materials. Section 18 is used in times of a so called agricultural emergency. In my opinion the emergency now is the massive contamination mentioned in the article below. The legal use of these chems is in the form of a plastic impregnated strip.

    Many of the larger beekeepers do not want to pay the high cost for the
    strips and buy the raw chem in bulk jugs and make their own shop rag
    treatments which is placed in the hives – this is illegal since its not
    a listed application and the application is not controlled.

    Numerous beekeepers are fined each year in MN, Nodak and Sodak for illegal use of these materials.

    The study noted in the interview of chemicals found in beehives neglected to mention that beekeeper applied chems were number 1, 2 & 3 in the amount of chemicals found in bees hives. Bee keepers are killing their own bees! As a professional full time beekeeper for over 30 years, there is no mystery to me why feedlot beekeepers bees are dying!!!!!

    http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1524991/honey_bees_suffer_from_pesticide_buildup/

    Honey Bees Suffer From Pesticide Buildup

    Posted on: Monday, 18 August 2008, 17:20 CDT

    Honey bees industriously bring pollen and nectar to the hive, but along
    with the bounty comes a wide variety of pesticides, according to Penn
    State researchers. Add the outside assault to the pesticides already in
    the waxy structure of the hive, and bee researchers see a problem
    difficult to evaluate and correct. However, an innovative approach may
    mitigate at least some beeswax contamination.

    The researchers presented their analysis of pollen, brood, adult bees
    and wax samples today (Aug. 18) at the 236th national American Chemical
    Society meeting in Philadelphia. Those results show unprecedented levels
    of fluvalinate and coumaphos — pesticides used in the hives to combat
    varroa mites — in all comb and foundation wax samples. They also found
    lower levels of 70 other pesticides and metabolites of those pesticides
    in pollen and bees.

    “Everyone figured that the acaricides (anti-varroa mite chemicals) would
    be present in the wax because the wax is reprocessed to form the
    structure of the hives,” says Maryann Frazier, senior extension
    associate. “It was a bit of a shock to see the levels and the widespread
    presence of these pesticides.”

    or for a video version of Maryann Fraziers important study:

    skip the first 40 minutes to get to the beekeeper chemical contamination part of her presentation

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4115244451959719523

  • http://inthesenewtimes.com Paul Anderson

    The red herring about cell phones is in fact another red herring. The German study was misreported Dr Kuhn only said that his experiment hinted at cell phones as a source of CCD . It did not prove or disprove anything.
    Whereas Dr Warnke who does prove that cell phones effect bees has been ignored by the establishment.
    http://inthesenewtimes.com/2008/09/29/the-birds-the-bees-and-mankind/

  • Jackie Carnahan

    Very informative article. I have a bit of a problem though.I llive in Fl. in the country. My neighbor has honeybees and they are coming to my place leaving pollen on my laundry hanging outside our vehicles and they have stung my dog at least three times. Is there anything I can do so they will leave? The beekeeper came one day and said he followed a line of them heading to my house.What can I do?

  • David

    Hi Jackie,

    I’m sorry you have had a bad experience with your neighbors bees. Unfortunately the “pollen” that you have seen on your laundry is actually bee defication. It is fairly harmlesss but not actractive on clean sheets. I would talk with your beekeeping neighbor and see if he/she can move their hives to an area away from where you keep your dogs and laundry. Please keep in mind that honeybees contribute greatly to all our well being and ask your neighbor to give you a jar of honey for the sacrifice you have made to keeping honeybees alive.

    David

  • Pingback: Honeybee is Canary in Coal Mine «

  • Richard

    Jackie,

    I see that you wrote back in February; I hope my response gets to you.

    Let me start by telling you that I am a beekeeper also.
    The honeybee is generally a gentle one, and the act of stinging is a last resort of self, or hive, defense. It is a last resort because it is an act of suicide for the bee. When a honeybee stings, it leaves the stinger and venom sack in place; leaving the bee with a fatal wound. If you have had to remove stingers from your dog, then it was most likely a honeybee. If not, it may have been another stinging pollinator. If they were in fact the honeybees, one would have to ask several questions on why the bees would sting your dog. I intend no offense, but the bees have not targeted your dog, but are responding to an act of aggression. One question would be, “do you and your neighbor live on small lots?”, “where are the hives located with respect to your dog?”, “If they are far away, can he get close?”. All bees are not very excited about loud noises, does your dog bark at the hives? this will incite a negative response. If you are both on small lots, and the hives are along you property line, there should be a barrier to discourage such interactions with the animals or people and the hive. This is just some basic information and just some places to start.

    On your other comment,
    Having no knowledge of your situation outside your post, I will take your word that the honeybees have honed in on something on your property because the neighbor admitted to following his bees there. This behavior is not uncommon, but is equally unusual. In this situation, the bees have sourced something that they find undeniably tempting. One potential source is water. Do you have a pool or other water source? are they heading there? Does your neighbor have a water source for them? The honeybee needs water to make honey. The water source usually would not end up as a line of bees, but you may see unusual numbers around. It is most likely a food source that they smell. Is there a particular location they are going to? If one can follow the line, one could probably find where they are going. How long has you neighbor had honeybees, and does this happen all the time?, every year around the same time?, or is it a new phenomenon? I see you wrote the post in February. I don’t know where you live, but where I am February is very cold for the Honeybee. Virtually all honeybee activity is halted below 40degrees Farenheight because they cannot move, even if they wanted to. Above that, you may see them active, but I usually don’t see my bees doing too much below 60 degrees. They like to stay in the hive where its warm. If the temperatures where you live are still cool enough to tempt the honeybees to stay inside, then it may be that they were hungry and went looking for food. February is the time of year in beekeeping (in my location) that we check on the hives because they may be running out of their honey stores, and need supplemental food to keep them alive. In my part of the world, if I didn’t feed them the wouldn’t be able to go looking for food and starve to death. If you location is warm enough in February, the bees may risk the temperatures to find food. Under this situation, they may also be a little short on temper because of their hunger (just like humans).

    Say for example, your neighbors’ honeybees were hungry, it was warm enough outside to fly, and you were baking tasty treats and goodies in your kitchen that would make any sugar loving, sugar smelling creature come running (especially any men in your life). Suppose your kitchen was warm enough to leave the windows open and a scout from your neighbors hive caught a whiff of the goodies on the wind (the honeybee have a amazing sense of smell). If they had any access to this sweet stuff, the hive would quickly learn of its location and you would see a beeline. I use this example because a beekeeper friend of mine told me this story, it is true. He followed his bees to his neighbors’ kitchen, after the neighbor complained that they were all over the place. The problem was resolved quite quickly by providing the bees with food of their own.

    Please don’t despair because there is a solution. It may be something happening at your place, it may be at you neighbors. But like my friends experience, it may be a combination. Again, the honeybee is quite a friendly pollinator. I can sit or stand four feet in front of the entrance to my hives (without protective gear) and the bees fly around me like a tree stump as they head into or out of the hive. They are more interested in collecting pollen and nectar to keep the colony alive than they are in my presence. The honeybee is quite an incredible creature, maybe you should ask you neighbor to bring you to the hives; the more you know, the less intimidating they are. Before I started in beekeeping, I was terrified of bees, hornets, and wasps. I still don’t like hornets or wasps much (mostly because they are MUCH more aggressive, some of them are carnivores, and they sting many, many times). The honeybee I am not bothered by at all.

    David is right; a jar of honey is definitely in order for you.

    Richard

  • susan zimmer

    As the bees are dying from a mixture of pesticidal (killing) chemicals, and numerous chemical poisons are found in their hives, how many chemicals are present in the honey that we consume? What is the toxic load in honey? Doe eating honey add to one’s toxic load?

  • susan zimmer

    I have not seen anyone address the safety of consuming honey considering the bees who make the honey are dying?

    Also, since honey bees are not native to the Americas, the Native American diet must have been poor in the variety of fruits. What wild fruits, berries existed prior to honey bees in the Americas?

  • Charles

    Chemicals in honey? I would be surprised to hear that. Also note…honey never spoils.

  • Deanna Smith

    I am doing a science lab on pesticides killing honey bees at VIU Nanaimo BC CANADA Vancouver Island. I have tried sugar water(very little sugar,lots of water)and its seems to bring the intoxified honey bees,out of there state,and back to sober flying almost immediately. Who knew…

  • Glen Cunningham, Ph.D.

    This article, and the responses to it, have been too one sided. I want to point out two other important things that should be considered:
    1. Honeybees can be killers to people who become allergic to their stings, so hives should not be placed within a mile or so of any dwelling.
    2. Honeybees are not the only pollinators of our important crops. They are only important to those farmers who have eliminated all the other pollinators. Honeybees are totally unnecessary for urban and suburban gardens.
    Let me describe these in more detail:
    1. The stings of honeybees cause allergic reactions in some people, and sometimes the reactions are fatal. You can’t tell who will develop this allergic response until one gets stung. I have had two stings which sent me to the nearby hospital. I got past all the people waiting in the emergency room because the receptionist could see I was having anaphylactic shock symptoms and needed immediate treatment. It was an expensive scary experience and it resulted in joint pain that tapered off slowly over several months.
    One of my friends, Linda, didn’t know she was allergic, so when she was stung while gardening, she ignored it. Her neighbor saw Linda collapse in the garden. When the neighbor couldn’t revive her, she dragged Linda into her car and took her to an emergency room only a few blocks away. Linda had stopped breathing and was blue when she was taken into the hospital, but was revived and treated and got out of the hospital a few days later. She seems pretty much back to normal now. But is this what you want to happen to your neighbor, or your kids, or you? No one has any business risking other people’s lives by raising bees in a populated area. It’s like raising rattlesnakes without a fence–you could kill someone and not even know it.
    2. Honeybees are not the only pollinators of our crops. They’re not even the best pollinators. Syrphid flies are better pollinators (most people can’t tell them from the bees they resemble), and there are several other insects that do a good job of pollination. This was illustrated during the varroa mite infestation a couple decades ago as mentioned in the article. The newspapers were quoting entomologists saying doom and gloom about how our crops would not be adequately pollinated that year. I checked on my favorite fruit tree all during the bloom time for the tree. It’s a plum tree variety which the Western Garden Book says needs another tree to pollinate (it’s not self-fruitful). I checked the tree at all times of day and in varying weather during the entire bloom. I didn’t see a single honeybee. I saw a couple syrphid flies and a few other insects I didn’t recognize, but no honeybees. Later in the spring, I had to thin the fruit, as usual, to prevent the branches from breaking since the tree had set too much fruit. The honeybees were totally unnecessary.
    So why do the farmers need to import honeybees into their orchards and fields? It’s because they have killed all the insects in the area. They have eliminated fence rows where plants survive throughout the year and support the pollinators which are available for crop pollination. The same is true of vegetation along drainage ditches in the fields. And they have sprayed insecticides in the orchards and fields to eliminate any stragglers. So the farmers have to bring in pollinators to fill the void. It would be more efficient to bring in syrphid flies, since fewer are needed, but the beekeepers provide the bees to get the additional crops of honey and wax.
    Suburban environments are diverse enough, and low enough in pesticide levels, for the natural pollinators to survive. So there is no need for honeybees there. Only the farmers have a need for honeybees to replace the pollinators they have destroyed.
    Please don’t raise honeybees near dwellings.

  • http://calitreview.com/1512 Carla Heuer

    When I was a kid, we had a bee hive of honeybees right across from the house that lived inside and outside of the back of a small tack/work shop building. It was less than 25 feet away from the house. The tack/work shop building was right next to a wind mill. There was a hill with our well in it right behind the tack/workshop. My mother had planted grapes which grew up the windmill base and came back year after year. The honeybees hive was quite visible inside of the tack/work shop, because the hive extended to the inside of the building. It never bothered us. My Dad was in there alot and so was I. It was his work shop for fixing things and my horses blanket, saddle, and bridle were in there. We did not have much sugar in our diets, hardly ever.
    When we were kids we even played with the bees and I can not ever remember being stung. We were only kids. We would pick them up by their wings and just look at them. We did that several times. We were never mean. My mother still gave us heck.
    We had alfaha growing around our place when I was young and a bee man brought his bee hives and parked his boxes on our property with my Dad and Mom’s permission. They were parked 2 miles away. We never saw his bees. We received some free bee honey. It was great.
    Also, I went camping at a State Park and was told there by the State Park person that mosquito’s and biting flies were attracted to sweets and pop, even just on your breath, which I thought was most interesting. Sweets attract things like insects, even on your breath. So a beer, pop, food with sugar, even if it is just on your breath, attracts insects.
    Once, as a young woman, I put a bucket of sugar water outside my window to keep the wasps from wanting to come in. Instead, I had more than I bargained for and had to take a swarming bunch of wasps by the buckets handle away from the house and dump it and run. Don’t ever put sugar water in a bucket. Put garlic powder down in front of your window and leave an open garlic powder container in your window.
    Perhaps a garlic powder on your lawn would work to keep the bees away from your property.
    Maybe peppermints, the breath mints, dropped around the yard would deter the bees, or it might just attract them. Maybe you could wipe peppermint oil across your window sill, if it deters them. You could put an open garlic powder in your kitchen window sill. Garlic powder is pungent and if bees are following good smells, it might well be your solution. It might well be worth a try. I like natural remedies and solutions. Look for one, and you will educate us. I found out throwing a hot pepper down a gopher, mole, or vole hole would get them off my lawn. I had almost 100 holes in my lawn at one time. I think they told their buddies. I got rid of squirrels by garlic powdering my lawn and kept the skunks and raccoons and woodchucks away, also. Natural remedies work, if you find the right one.
    I once bought powders of urine to keep one kind of critter away only to attract another bunch. I put down both kinds and ended up with all the critters I did not want. That is when I went to pungent and natural like the garlic and hot peppers, and I really don’t use anything else.
    Lots of wasps live here and some bees. I just manage them now, with garlic powder. I love honey bees, but I don’t want them in my house. The garlic powder works.

  • Valerie

    May I use Emmett Pepper’s photo of the truck transporting bees? I’m writing a book: The Beehive Effect; Ancient Rites – Quantum Physics

  • CLR_Editor

    Hi Valerie,

    We received permission from Emmett Pepper to use that photo when the article was published years ago. I believe it was through Flickr. But we don’t have authority to grant permissions to anyone else. You would have to get permission directly from him.

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