The Western honeybee, Apis mellifera, came to North America with European settlers in 1622. An invasive species in the 17th century, the honeybee has since become indispensable for its services as a pollinator. Carrying pollen from flower to flower on their bodies, honeybees complete the plant reproductive cycle, vital for the creation of fruit. Farmers in the U.S. rely on honeybees to pollinate crops including apples, blueberries, cantaloupe, soybeans, pumpkins, and almonds, among others.
Honeybee populations in North America have declined by about 50 percent in the last half-century. Nowadays, many farmers purchase "pollination services" from beekeepers who drive around the country who haul beehives in the backs of commercial trucks. The New York Times reports that prices for these services have skyrocketed over the past couple of years—farmers now pay over $100 to rent a bee colony.
The rise in price is due, in part, to a mysterious ailment that's decimating honeybee populations even further. Dubbed "Colony Collapse Disorder," the problem has been likened to an apiary version of HIV. Says the Times:
Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the "strong immune suppression" investigators have observed "could be the AIDS of the bee industry," making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off.
The etiology of Colony Collapse Disorder, which causes entire hives of bees to die off with alarming rapidity, are not yet understood. Scientists from Penn State, the University of Montana, the USDA, and the Florida Department of Agriculture have formed a working group to look into the genesis of the disorder. Meanwhile, beekeepers and farmers hold their breaths about the future of bees in America, and the fate of billions of dollars worth of crops that rely on honeybees for their existence.
Check out a related story on Seedmagazine.com.