As editor of Bee Culture, North America's most popular beekeeping magazine, Kim Flottum quickly realized that something was horribly awry. Last November, a beekeeper in Florida went out to his backyard hive to find two-thirds of his bees gone — their carcasses nowhere to be found. A man transporting two truckloads bees to California arrived to find that nearly all had died. A farmer in Pennsylvania reported that his entire colony had been killed off — and that foraging animals were staying away from the dead hive, as if it was emitting toxic fumes.
Similar reports were coming in from across the country. By April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting staggering losses. Statistics were hard to keep track of, but most beekeepers were reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. In Ohio, 72 percent of colonies were killed off.
"It was a complete, horrifying mystery," says Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation.
But it had to be solved fast. This wasn't a problem afflicting just a few scattered hobbyists. The food chain was under attack. Every third bite of the human diet comes from plants pollinated by bees.
"Honey bees are the most important pollinators on the planet," Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois said recently. "They pollinate vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds. If bees go away, we're eating gruel."
Entomologists suddenly found themselves taking on the role of medical investigator, trying to determine the cause of this strange disease they dubbed "colony collapse disorder." In September, a group of scientists stumbled on a possible culprit: the Israeli acute paralysis virus. Though it had been identified a few years before, scientists believe it may have mutated into a fatal form, causing instant paralysis in affected bees.
But the link has not been accepted by everyone in the scientific community. Some claim that pesticides, fatigue, and global warming are all contributing to the bees' elimination.
In the meantime, they continued to die by the thousands. So keepers came up with makeshift solutions. In China, fruit farmers employ workers to hand-pollinate their trees. Others are importing bees from Australia and New Zealand. And in Ohio, keepers are attempting to breed a "super bee" — a new strain immune to disease and the cold. The project is dubbed "the Ohio Queen Project."
Last spring, members of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association surveyed the few remaining bees that survived the winter. Nine regional coordinators closely examined the insects, looking to find as many queen bees as they could that were gentle, healthy, and proven honey producers. Then, they artificially inseminated these bees with the sperm of attractive male stock. The hope is that a few of these bee lines will prove resistant to both the cold and the disease.
"We're looking for survivability," says Joe Latshaw, one of the coordinators.
They won't know until next spring which — if any — of the strains survived. But the ones that do will be valuable. Commercial keepers look for young bees with proven, superior genes. The surviving offspring could go for $500 apiece, Flottum says. And the Ohio keepers are looking to start a sort of Match.com for bees, where people can go online to examine a bee's traits and family lineage, says Dana Stallman, the organization's president.
But organizers say the project's primary purpose isn't profit. Historically, Ohio keepers looked to southern growers to start new colonies. But these insects aren't used to midwestern winters. Last year, they weren't strong enough to fight off both the freezing temperatures and colony collapse disease. The few bees that survived were mostly Ohio-bred stock.
So keepers are looking to create a superior "buckeye bee." If they succeed, they might lure back keepers who gave up on the business after last season. That's why the project has agreed to give away the offspring — if any survive the coming winter.
Flottum isn't so optimistic. Dressed in a futuristic keeper's suit and netted veil, he walks out to the blue hives in his Medina backyard. As he lifts one of the pointy roofs, bees swarm around his head like a dust storm. In February, he made this same short walk, only to find that five of his six colonies were dead. Instead of producing 500 pounds of honey, he produced only 60.
He took solace in the colony that survived, infusing its genes into his new hives. It's too soon to know what fate holds for them, he says, gazing adoringly at his insects. But around the country, early signs aren't looking so good.
In Florida, keepers are reporting the same depressing statistics as last year. Bees vanishing — with no trace of their corpses — and once healthy hives collapsing in a week.
"This is a big problem," Flottum sighs. "If breeding doesn't work, if this disease gets any worse, I just don't know what we're going to do."