As winter approaches, farmers, beekeepers and entomologists are closely monitoring the nation's honeybee population to see if it will take another massive hit from Colony Collapse Disorder, the ominous-sounding term given to last year's sudden, inexplicable disappearance of entire hives of honeybees.
The stakes are tremendous: The tiny pollinators are responsible for creating one-third of the nation's crops, and nearly $15 billion of the overall economy. Florida — the first state to report bee disappearances last year — recorded a small number of cases again last month. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it's too early to tell if this indicates another impending collapse.
“Right now we're in a reasonably comfortable position,” said Jeff Pettis, head of the USDA's Bee Research Laboratory. “But there's a lot of anxiety about whether we'll see losses again this fall and winter, and we just don't know the answer to that right now.”
Researchers performing post-mortems on abandoned hives have so far found a number of potential causes, including a rare virus. They're also examining the potential role played by pesticides, environmental stresses and tiny pests such as mites that can plague winged insects. Even if these are found not to be causes of the disorder, consumers are learning that the life of the honeybee today is anything but sweet.