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What's happening to the bees?

Suddenly, the bees farmers and growers rely on are vanishing. Researchers are scrambling to find out why.

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Beekeeper James Doan first began finding empty hives last fall. Entire bee colonies seemed to have up and vanished, leaving their honey behind. Noting the unusually wet fall in Hamlin, N.Y., he blamed the weather. Unable to forage in the rain, the bees probably starved, he reasoned.

But when deserted hives began appearing daily, "we knew it was something different," he says. Now, at the beginning of the 2007 pollination season, more than half of his 4,300 hives are gone. "I'm just about ready to give up," says Mr. Doan from his honeybee wintering site in Ft. Meade, Fla. "I'm not sure I can survive."

The cause of the die-offs has yet to be determined. Its effect on the food supply may be significant. Longer-term, it may also force a rethinking of some agricultural practices including our heavy reliance on human-managed bees for pollination.

Scientists call it "colony collapse disorder" (CCD). First reported in Florida last fall, the problem has since spread to 24 states. Commercial beekeepers are reporting losses of between 50 and 90 percent, an unprecedented amount even for an industry accustomed to die-offs.

Many worry that what's shaping up to be a honeybee catastrophe will disrupt the food supply. While staple crops like wheat and corn are pollinated by wind, some 90 cultivated flowering crops – from almonds and apples to cranberries and watermelons – rely heavily on honeybees trucked in for pollinization. Honeybees pollinate every third bite of food ingested by Americans, says a Cornell study. Bees help generate some $14 billion in produce.

Research is only beginning and hard data is still lacking, but beekeepers suspect everything from a new virus or parasite to pesticides and genetically modified crops. Scientists have hastily established a CCD working group at Pennsylvania State University. Last week, the US House of Representatives' Committee on Agriculture held hearings on the missing bees.

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