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?

But today's trip, like most that take place during the pollination season from February through May, won't involve interlopers. By 9 a.m. the air in the bee yard is thick with swarming bees and the smell of smoldering pine. But soon each flatbed is stacked high with hives. Bergman's crew lashes down the cargo with nylon webbing, and the trucks depart for watermelon fields as far south as the Arkansas border, and north into the region around Cape Girardeau.


As far back as the nineteenth century, beekeepers struggled with American foulbrood, a bacterial infection that kills bee larvae. Taking notice, Congress passed the Honeybee Act of 1922, which aimed to protect the nation's bee population from disease by strictly regulating the importation of foreign stock. But the Honeybee Act (which ultimately was repealed in 2004) failed to prevent several mysterious die-offs during the twentieth century.

Of course, bees have been susceptible to mysterious mass kills since their introduction to the United States in the 1600s. But although these die-offs, which went by names like Fall Dwindle Disease, Spring Dwindle Disease and Disappearing Disease, were recorded, beekeepers and scientists failed to keep detailed records of the symptoms or how many bees were lost. So today's researchers don't know whether CCD is worse than these earlier plagues, or even whether the phenomenon's symptoms are similar to any of the earlier epidemics.

"Nobody ever figured out what the earlier disappearances were. The records are very sketchy," says University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who last year authored a study on the state of the nation's pollinators. (Not good.) "We may be bad now, but at least we are making an effort to keep records."

The U.S. honeybee population took a severe nosedive in the mid-1980s. The cause was a one-two punch of nonnative mites: the varroa mite, which attacks bees during their larval stage and literally sucks the life out of them, and trachea mites, which live in the insects' respiratory tubes and interfere with breathing.

Intended to protect the domestic honeybee population, the Honeybee Act of 1922 had at least one unintended consequence: It effectively froze the U.S. honeybee population's genetic variability. There were so few new bees entering the country that by the time the varroa mite arrived — the far more devastating of the aforementioned two pests — the U.S. honeybee population was a veritable monoculture made up of hive after hive of genetically identical bees.

Worse, those bees had never encountered varroa mite, which some scientists estimate helped reduce the nation's domesticated honeybee population by 50 percent since it appeared on these shores in 1987.

Even a beekeeper like Bergman, who has not felt the effects of CCD, says that varroa mite has taken a heavy toll on his operation: Like many beekeepers, his annual mortality rate hovers at roughly 30 percent — unthinkably high for most modes of agriculture.

"It used to be that you had, like, a 10 to 15 percent mortality rate," Bergman says. "Now with varroa and trachea mite and hive beetle and insecticides — it just gets to be a lot of stress on bees."

If the mite has taken a heavy toll on the domesticated honeybee stock, it has destroyed the country's feral bee population. Bereft of manmade mite treatments, feral bees have almost entirely disappeared from the landscape, leaving today's post-varroa honeybee a creature almost wholly dependent upon man for its existence.

"The varroa was a huge hit. It removed this background of feral bees," says Charlie Whitfield, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. "The feral populations were not getting treated for mites. They'd had to deal with pesticides on their own, so there was a fair amount of natural selection going on. But once a new pathogen comes along and you don't have the variant present in your population to adapt, everybody dies."


Though unknown domestically until it was introduced to North America by Dutch settlers in 1638, apis mellifera has a long and intimate history with its human keepers. Cultivated by humans as far back as 4,000 B.C., honey is also responsible for mead — likely the first alcoholic beverage. Egyptians used beeswax for embalming, mummification and sealing coffins, and several early societies used wax and honey — the latter because of its antibacterial properties — to dress wounds.

The advent of beeswax candles was an early invention that would carry over into Christian religious services and prompt the long history of beekeeping monks. More recently, European settlers were unable to cultivate apple trees until a group of seventeenth-century Dutch settlers imported honeybees.

In the years following their arrival in the United States, beekeepers imported several different varieties of honeybee from as far away as Japan and Russia. By the late nineteenth century, though, the so-called Italian Gold had become the bee of choice. Prized for its gentle disposition and prodigious honey-making ability, the Italian Gold strain is now predominant in the U.S. honeybee stock, although U.S. honeybees are so interbred at this point that it's a bit of an apian mutt.

Aside from the obvious benefits of beeswax and honey production, it is the social structure of the hive — self-contained, with consistent, manipulable biological rhythms — that has ensured the close relationship between humans and honeybees.

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