Buzzkill

See all those little suckers? Did you know that they're an invasive species and a linchpin of modern agriculture? That they're dying off by the million and no one's sure why?

Moments ago the honeybee now suspended between Reed Johnson's tweezers was crawling around a Plexiglas cube. Just one day old, the young bee's wings have yet to harden. Her stinger is still developing, and it will be a few days, at least, before either device is serviceable.

So the insect had little chance of defending herself when Johnson, a 31-year-old graduate student of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, plucked her from the cube and tossed her into a misty cooler filled with dry ice. Landing on the solid chunk of carbon dioxide, the bee gently folded her legs as she succumbed to the vaporous cold.

Working quickly, Johnson guillotines the insect with a firm pinch to the taper separating head from thorax. He peers into an aging gunmetal-gray microscope, then inserts the fine point of a pair of scissors at the base of the bee's abdomen. With a few clicks of thumb to forefinger, he gingerly cuts away the animal's thin abdominal casing, exposing the immature honeybee's ochre-colored viscera.

It will be the day's first dissection.

To the untrained eye, the string of organs Johnson lays bare looks more like snot than a discrete honey crop and intestinal tract. But Johnson, a baby-faced researcher who has spent the past few months scrutinizing the brown and runny innards of insects frozen as far back as 2005, rarely sees such a healthy specimen.

"This is so much easier on a fresh bee," marvels the entomologist, whose long-limbed and slender build could easily be mistaken for that of a teenager, were it not for his full head of prematurely gray hair. "Now I'll take this gut and refreeze it."

Toiling in the lab of professor May Berenbaum, Johnson is part of a nationwide effort launched by entomologists to solve the mysterious mass die-offs that have been plaguing the country's honeybee population. First reported this past November, the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is marked by hives whose population of worker bees simply does not return home, leaving the queen and her immature brood to languish and die.

The mysterious disappearances have prompted entomologists from Pennsylvania to California to scour empty beehives and dissect the survivors in hopes of finding a culprit. Some teams are looking into whether pesticides are to blame. Others are searching for a new or emerging pathogen. Still more are examining honeybee nutrition and the host of stresses that mark modern apian life.

So far it's a bust.

The work has gained urgency because of the vast scale of the disappearances. The honeybee population is constantly growing and shrinking, making it difficult to put a precise number on the total population, but scientists estimate that CCD has felled roughly 25 percent of the nation's honeybees. The phenomenon has been reported in 37 states to date, as well as in Canada and Europe. The Apiary Inspectors of America, the official association of state regulators, reports that of the 384 beekeeping operations reporting losses, nearly a quarter lost more than 50 percent of their colonies over the winter. Some lost as much as 90 percent of their hives.

That's a lot of bees. It's also a lot of money. So far CCD has cost beekeepers an estimated $150 million. But beekeepers say that's just a foretaste of the devastation Colony Collapse could wreak on a pollination industry valued at roughly $14 billion.

Honeybees play a vital role in the agricultural industry. While they're not the only means by which crops are pollinated, they are uniquely suited to the task. Honeybees are easily transportable. Hives can be grown or shrunk to fit the demands of the job. Perhaps most important, honeybees are incomparably versatile — capable of efficiently pollinating more than 100 different fruits and vegetables. What's more, they are the only pollinator capable of delivering in an agricultural system where acres upon acres of identical crops must be pollinated simultaneously.

But honeybees have paid a price. A non-native creature imported to the United States from Europe in the seventeenth century, they've lost their nature — the feral honeybee population was wiped out more than a decade ago — and exist today less as a species than an agricultural commodity, as essential as fertilizer.

And infinitely more mysterious.

"People have just assumed that pollination would always be there, like clean water or fresh air," says Berenbaum, who's also a member of the CCD working group. "The main finding so far is that we just don't know very much."


Modern American beekeeping bears only a passing resemblance to the once-gentlemanly pursuit of honey-making. Beekeepers continue to harvest honey as a natural and lucrative byproduct of keeping bees, but these days it's chiefly a sideline to their real business: pollination services.

An insect harvesting nectar from a blossom invariably rubs up against the flower's stamen. When the insect moves on, it takes some pollen with it. At the creature's next destination, some of the pollen from the prior encounter rubs off onto the blossom's female reproductive organs, or carpels. Though many insects serve as pollinators, a honeybee's anatomy, coupled with its industrious nature, make it ideally suited to the task. While the sex life of plants is protracted and nearly invisible, crop farmers will pay beekeepers handsomely for their efficient intervention.

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