Lost colonies

At first sight, the fallout scene seems all too familiar. The victims stagger about in a daze, while others stare blankly in apathy, ready to die. Then the visitor is struck by an unsettling fact: Most of the population has simply vanished, as if the residents fled in panic. The site is well stocked with food and shows no signs of physical damage. Something has gone terribly wrong here, yet the once-bustling metropolis offers few clues to explain its collapse.

It might be a scene from a Star Trek episode, or a journal entry by an anthropologist describing some lost colony. But this mystery is much closer to home. The victims are honeybees, dying off en masse from an uncertain cause. Something like a quarter of America's honeybee colonies has perished in the past two years, threatening the world's multibillion dollar agricultural industry, which depends on bees to pollinate flowers and set fruit and vegetables. Some crops -- like almonds, watermelons and blueberries -- are dependent on honeybees. The mortality syndrome is a worldwide concern, destroying domesticated honeybees and threatening wild bees as well.

The victims and villains of this unfolding drama have been documented in several books already, among them Rowan Jacobsen's "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis." Jacobsen is a food and environmental writer who takes up the plight of the honeybee by merging science with suspense to serve up an epidemiologic detective story.

Bees are nature's sexual go-betweens, spreading pollen from male flowers to impregnate the females and cause their ovaries to swell into fruit pods. Wind does the work for some plants -- scattering the love dust of grasses and pine trees -- but more evolutionarily advanced species are locked into an a complex interdependence with pollinator insects. Most wild insects will work a few types of flowers, but the honeybee is indiscriminate, a universal pollinating machine.

The bees aren't facing a single enemy. They are besieged by chemicals, pathogens and habitat destruction. The consequences of a bee-less world are already here, Jacobsen shows. Day laborers in Sichuan, China, are forced to hand-pollinate pear tree blossoms because the bees have been exterminated by insecticide. Vanilla farmers in Mexico must pollinate their vanilla orchid with the aid of a toothpick because the non-stinging local bees have been wiped out by deforestation. The passion fruit industry of Brazil today relies on humans to spread pollen by hand from passion flower to passion flower because the native carpenter bee buzzes no more.

Honeybees aren't accidental guests wafting with the breezes. The hives are trucked and flown all over this country and Europe, following the agricultural bloom cycle, not unlike the seasonal circuit of migrant farm workers. Beekeeping is a big business, and millions of these industrious creatures are leased out to farmers to perform their aerial mission to enable plants to reproduce.

Several years ago honeybees here and in Europe began showing disturbing signs. A beekeeper would open his hive and find plenty of honey, but the bees crawled about aimlessly, as if stunned and confused. Most of the bees were just gone. It's assumed their internal GPS systems went haywire and they never found their way home.

Afflicted bees exhibit dementia-like symptoms that suggest winged patients with advanced cases of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. When analyzed in an incubator, the sick honeybees sprouted fungus from their mouths and anuses. Scientists discovered the bees were infested with disease, and -- giving rise to the AIDS analogy -- they lacked immune systems. The list of suspected causes has included viruses and pesticides, parasites and miticides, fungi and fungicides, but the experts haven't been able to pinpoint a single source.

Jacobsen blames the bee kill on a combination of factors, not a single one of which is potent enough to bring down the honeybee but together combine into a lethal cocktail. Jacobsen says the gentle bees are overworked, overbred and overfed with supplements. They suffer from the consummate modern malady: stress.

"Trucked to new sites every few weeks, jacked up on high-fructose corn syrup, dosed with pesticides and antibiotics, invaded by parasites, and exposed to exotic pathogens, they are worn thinner and thinner," he writes. The disorder "is a symptom of a larger disease -- a disease of fossil fuels and chemical shortcuts, of billion-bee slums and the speed of the modern world."

The name for the great bee epidemic could well serve as a title for a Richard Preston thriller: "colony collapse disorder." As the alarming mortality rate of the unpretentious little insect has spread across the globe, the reaction has been swift: Just this year this country has held congressional hearings, launched a $4.1 million government-sponsored study, and rolled out a federal crop insurance program for beekeepers.

Burt's Bees, the natural care products company founded by a beekeeper and now based in Durham, started marketing Colony Collapse Disorder Beeswax Lip Balm and donates 5 percent of the proceeds to the cause. Testifying before Congress in June, company CEO John Replogle warned: "By helping to save the bees, we save a lot more than the bees."

But the good news is that the docile honeybee isn't headed for extinction, Jacobsen concludes. We are in the down phase of one of nature's periodic cycles of creation and destruction. When the purge passes, a stronger honeybee will emerge able to resist mankind's microscopic malefactors. Such bees do exist already, but they are unsuitable for domestication. However, they give hope that the honeybee will endure. One analog for a healthier, stronger pollinator might be found in the honeybee's resilient but aggressive cousin –-- the Africanized killer bee -- which produces superb honey, but when annoyed shows no mercy to its victims.

John Murawski is an N&O business writer who depends on pollinators for many of the 50-plus fruit trees growing in his home orchard.