It was in the fall of 2006 that Pennsylvania beekeeper Dave Hackenberg first started noticing problems with his hives. By the next February, he figured he had lost all but 800 of his 3,000 hives.
Something was killing the bees. Researchers later tagged it with a name -- Colony Collapse Disorder -- but they have been unable to determine precisely what is killing the bees.
Last week, beekeepers and others filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking it to suspend use of a pesticide that, after years of frantic work by researchers, has been associated with the bee die-offs.
"EPA has an obligation to protect pollinators from the threat of pesticides," said Jeff Anderson of California Minnesota Honey Farms, a co-petitioner, in a press release from the group, Beyond Pesticides. "The Agency has failed to adequately regulate pesticides harmful to pollinators despite scientific and on-the-ground evidence presented by academics and beekeepers."
At stake is the work the honeybees do, pollinating more than $15 billion worth of U.S. crops, including Pennsylvania's apple harvest, the fourth-largest in the nation, worth $45 million, and New Jersey's cranberries and blueberries.
While a few crops, such as corn and wheat, are pollinated by the wind, most need bees. Without these insects, crop yields would fall dramatically. Agronomists estimate Americans owe one in three bites of food to bees.
Honeybees are not a native species. But natives are also in trouble, often due to habitat decline.
The recent petition specified a chemical called clothianidin, which is in a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, which are usesd on crops to protect them, but can weaken or kill bees.
It contends that EPA failed to follow its own regulations. EPA granted conditional registration to clothianidin in 2003. Granting the conditional registration was contingent upon the subsequent submission of an acceptable field study showing no "unreasonable adverse effects" on pollinators, the group said. "This requirement has not been met. In the years since, a substantial body of scientific evidence has confirmed that clothianidin presents serious risks to honey bees," the group said.
Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press story the disease has destroyed colonies at a rate of about 30 percent a year. Before that, losses were about 15 percent a year from a variety of pests and diseases.
You can learn more about the neonicotinoids in this Science Daily story about new research linking it to bee deaths. The researchers found that pneumatic drillling machines used for planting expels burts of air that contains high concentrations of any insecticide that might be in the seed coating. Honeybees that flew through the emission cloud died.