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?

By using a microarray (a device that allows researchers to determine what genes were active at the time of death), Johnson will be able to discover the bee's biological state at the moment it was collected. If a sample of CCD bees were responding to, say, an ingested pesticide, those detoxifying genes would show up as active on the microarray.

"If the bee was in heavy-duty detoxification mode because it was exposed to some sort of a toxin, you'd expect to find many copies of genes involved in detoxification in that bee," Johnson elaborates. "If there are many, many copies of detoxification genes in the CCD bees, that would be evidence that it was possibly under some sort of environmental stress when it died."

But vast tracts of the insect's genetic code have yet to be cracked.

Once a gentlemanly pursuit, beekeeping is now an integral part of our industrialized agricultural system.
Once a gentlemanly pursuit, beekeeping is now an integral part of our industrialized agricultural system.
King bee: Delta Bee Company head honcho Neal Bergman.
King bee: Delta Bee Company head honcho Neal Bergman.

"That's the big problem," says Johnson. "Any conceivable genetic change should be picked up by the microarray, but the real problem is in figuring out what that means. Half of these genes — we don't even know what they are."

Researchers at other labs, meanwhile, are looking into other potential culprits. Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University who heads up the CCD working group, is investigating whether the plague may be the effect of a new or emerging pathogen. So far Cox-Foster's team is the furthest along of any group.

"We've identified a group of pathogens that are only associated with the CCD colonies and are not found in healthy colonies," Cox-Foster says. "We think that they are in large part responsible. But they're not completely responsible — these pathogens are emerging themselves, and some of them are new to the United States."

Cox-Foster says her findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Science. Citing the journal's customary press embargo on upcoming articles, she declined to discuss her findings in detail.

At any rate, even Cox-Foster's research remains preliminary. "Now we need to come back and demonstrate that indeed these are the causal organisms," explains the Penn State biologist. "We know that some of them have been found before. But they may have gone through some genetic changes, or been modified somehow, so we need to follow up on our research."

She is also quick to emphasize that pathogens are only partially responsible for CCD, which is almost certainly caused by a variety of modern stresses that afflict today's honeybees.

In the early days of the epidemic, it was suggested that cell phones might be affecting bees' navigational apparatus. Some beekeepers theorized that genetically modified corn was to blame. Various other culprits, including solar flares, al-Qaeda and even some sort of apian rapture, have been floated. One person blamed Kevin Federline, noting that bees had only gone missing in states where the artist had performed.

"The cell phones? We feel fairly comfortable that they're not playing a major role here," Cox-Foster says. "The corn we're fairly certain is not a major player." Ditto the sun, the terrorists and K-Fed.

Insecticides, though — and specifically a class called neonicitinoids — are a target.

"Although these are relatively safe for human consumption, they are very toxic chemicals to the pollinators," says Cox-Foster. "There's evidence that these chemicals can build up in the pollen and the nectar at sublethal concentrations for the bees, and that this may affect their overall physiology, including maybe their learning processes — for instance, how well a bee can memorize its route when it leaves home."

But if insecticides are killing the bees, a larger question remains: Why now?

"There are clearly sublethal effects. Someone would have to find that there's been heavier use of those insecticides in the last year or so," says Jay Evans, an entomologist who works for the United States Department of Agriculture. "Insecticides don't spread the way a pathogen does. You have to really be in the area where it's been sprayed to show the effects."

Given their seemingly infinite replicability, honeybees will likely survive this latest assault, just as they have varroa and trachea mite, wax moth and hive beetle. Many believe the real danger is that beekeeping will cease to be an economically feasible profession.

Often passed down through families, it is a physically demanding trade that requies a strong knowledge base. Lose too many bees, and we may sacrifice that expertise.

"I'm really in a bad place here," says Glen Davis, a migratory beekeeper with a midsize operation in the western Missouri town of Bates City. Davis says that over the winter he lost 500 hives to CCD — roughly 80 percent of his inventory. He spent nearly $25,000 on replacement bees, only to watch many of the new hives perish.

"I'm still trying to find out why the new bees that I put in there died," says Davis. "I've got to wonder if the rest of my bees are going to catch it, and if they're all going to die again."


Pulling into a tree-shaded clearing about a half-mile from the banks of the Missouri River, Sharon Gibbons steps out of her Ford F-150 pickup and locates a plank resting atop two poles that have been driven into the ground.

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