When I first got the assignment to do a story on dead honeybees, I was intrigued and curious … not just about why they were dying, but why people would care. Most people probably view bees as a nuisance and a danger, something to swat or avoid in the spring and summer. Who wants to get stung? The less bees the better … right?
What I didn't know is that bees pollinate more than flowers. They're partially responsible for one out of every three bites of food the average American eats. Bees pollinate cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, melons, and apples. They pollinate carrots, broccoli, avocado, and cucumber. And did you know bees pollinate almonds? California apparently has the biggest almond groves in the world, supplying 80 percent of the nuts on the market. In order to grow almonds and the rest of the crops, farmers raise or truck in tens of thousands of honeybees and let them loose in the fields. Without the bees, the crops are misshapen, discolored, or unhealthy. The yield would be drastically reduced, less attractive, and more expensive. And this is a scenario that could play out later this year.
Scientists are reporting a dramatic loss of honeybee colonies. Some beekeepers say they're losing 20 percent of their bees, others say half, some say 80 percent. They open the hives to find the bees dead, or gone. Experts tell me when the bees get sick, they'll instinctively leave the hive to try and protect the others. More and more bees are doing just that, and no one is sure why.
Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Penn State University, has been working on the problem for months now. She says the die-off is unprecedented, and she's made some dramatic discoveries. For example, the normally resilient bees she dissected showed traces of not one or two diseases, but nearly every disease known to affect them over the past century. They had ALL the diseases at once, a sign their immune systems have been compromised.
"It sounds like bee AIDS...?" I asked.
"It is in a way,” she said. "AIDS in humans is caused by HIV. We don't have anything like that yet but we are seeing something very similar in terms of bee AIDS here. The bees are immuno-compromised, being stressed somehow."
Some of the stress could be related to travel, since the bees are being trucked or flown across the country every spring to pollinate different crops. Some could be related to the severe weather swings we've seen over the past few years. But many questions remain unanswered.
She and the other scientists working on the CSI-style case don't think this is just a cyclical thing. It's uncommon, unusual, and frightening to everyone associated with the often-overlooked industry.
No one is sure just how bad it will be when the hives are opened in late march, but the experts say they don't think this is the beginning of the end to honeybees. They're confident they'll eventually figure out a way to stop what's being called "colony collapse disorder." In the meantime, you may see higher prices, and/or less fresh fruit and vegetables on the shelves.
Rick Leventhal has been a New York-based correspondent with FOX News Channel (FNC) since June 1997. You can read his bio here.