By Dan Vergano and Patrick O’Driscoll, USA TODAY

“The bees were gone,” David Hackenberg says. “The honey was still there. There’s young brood (eggs) still in the hive. Bees just don’t do that.”

On that November night last year in the Florida field where he wintered his bees, Hackenberg found 400 hives empty. Another 30 hives were “disappearing, dwindling or whatever you want to call it,” and their bees were “full of a fungus nobody’s ever seen before.”

The discovery by Hackenberg, 58, a beekeeper from Lewisburg, Pa., was the first buzz about a plague that now afflicts 27 states, from the East Coast to the West. Beekeepers report losses of 30% to 90% of their honeybee hives, according to a Congressional Research Service study in March. Some report total losses.

Now a nationwide investigation, congressional panels and last week’s U.S. Department of Agriculture scientific workshop swarm around the newly named “colony collapse disorder.” Says the USDA’s Kevin Hackett, “With more dead and weakened colonies, the odds are building up for real problems.”

Busy bees

The $15-billion-a-year honeybee industry is about more than honey: The nimble insects pollinate 90% to 100% of at least 19 kinds of fruits, vegetables and nuts nationwide, from almonds and apples to onions and broccoli.

“Basically, everything fun and nutritious on your table – fruits, nuts, berries, everything but the grains – require bee pollinators,” Hackett says.

Beekeepers, who travel nationwide supplying pollinators to farmers, have been losing honeybees for a long time, mostly a result of suburbs snapping up habitat and the invasion in the 1980s of two foreign parasitic mite species. As a result, bee colonies have declined 60% since 1947, from an estimated 5.9 million to 2.4 million, says entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois.

Each year, in fact, the bee industry supplies at least 1 million queens and packages of bees to replace lost hives, according to a 2006 National Research Council report. And sudden losses of hives have been reported since the 1800s.

But colony collapse disorder differs from past outbreaks:

  • Instead of dying in place, the bees abandon the hives, leaving behind the queen and young bees.
  • Remaining bees eat sparsely and suffer the symptoms – high levels of bacteria, viruses and fungi in the guts – seen by Hackenberg.
  • Collapses can occur within two days, Hackett says.
  • Parasites wait unusually long to invade abandoned hives.

Daniel Weaver, head of the 1,500-member American Beekeeping Federation, estimates that about 600,000 of 2 million hives (a more conservative number than other estimates) nationwide have been lost.

Weaver, of Navasota, Texas, says his hives have been spared the mystery affliction so far. “But if we go into another winter without understanding what’s going on, the risk of a more devastating effect on beekeepers is a real possibility,” he says.

Fittingly, in The Cherry Orchard, physician/playwright Anton Chekhov observed that when people offer many remedies for an illness, you can be sure it is incurable.

If so, the bees are in trouble. A colony collapse disorder working group based at Pennsylvania State University has become a central clearinghouse for all the suspected causes, which include:

  • An overload of parasites, such as bloodsucking varroa mites, that have ravaged bees. The parasites reportedly spread to Hawaii only last week.
  • Pesticide contamination. Hotly debated suspicion centers on whether “neonicotinoid” insecticides interfere with the foraging behavior of bees, leading them to abandon their hives.
  • Fungal diseases such as Nosema ceranae, which is blamed for big bee losses in Spain. It was spotted by University of California-San Francisco researchers who were examining sample dead bees last week.
  • The rigors of traveling in trucks from crop to crop.

A complex problem

“We may have a perfect storm of many problems combining to kill the bees,” Hackett says. And bees are social animals, who cue each other through “bee dances” to find food. “Something could be just disrupting bee society and causing the problem. That’s very difficult to tease out.”

Weaver says the beekeeper federation is “bombarded with lots of interesting theories,” including “far-fetched ideas like cellphones,” the notion that radio waves from mobile phones are zapping the bees’ direction-sensing abilities.

“But right now there’s not a lot of evidence to support any of these theories,” Weaver says. “We think science is the only way to get to the bottom of this.”

The USDA spends about $9 million a year on bee research, Hackett says, about half of it focused on breeding bees resistant to mites. California is undertaking a five-year, $5 million project to examine insecticides, hive care and transport as well, he says.

Weaver says researchers need perhaps $50 million over the next five years to cover studies, deeper analysis of the “leading suspects” and a national surveillance system.

“Creating healthier bees, with a good diet, better able to fight disease is the best thing we can do right now,” Hackett says. Otherwise, “when you sit down to dinner, the question will be what sort of grain do you want – corn or wheat or rice – because that’s about all the choice we’ll have left.”