Bees pollinate at least one third of our diet. It is hardly surprising, then, that renting out colonies for pollination is many times more profitable than honey production—nearly $15 billion worth of crops utilize the insects every year.
American agriculture relies heavily on hives, which are piled into trucks and moved from coast to coast. California almonds, for example, depend entirely on bees. By 2012, it is estimated that 90% of current hives in the United States will be needed to pollinate the groves. Other dependent crops include blueberries, peaches, cranberries, squash, and pumpkins.
Thus, news spread quickly when, in late 2006, worker bees from Western honeybee colonies began to disappear. Hive afflictions are not uncommon, but colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a puzzling phenomenon because the worker bees vanish, leaving behind a queen, brood, and food stores that are not immediately robbed by other bees.
According to a recent study, a virus likely triggers the disorder. Researchers caution, however, that there are probably a variety of factors and not a singular cause. Toxins, pesticides, stress, genetic tampering, and other woes of commercial beekeeping are all suspected.
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UPDATE: Check out this bleak assessment of the problem on AlterNet, October 16th.