HAMMONTON, N.J. - Here in the self-proclaimed blueberry capital of the world, on the biggest blueberry farm of its kind in the world, the mysterious disappearance of the honey bee could have spelled disaster.
Instead, tanned and burly Bobby Galletta walked down a line of bushes while, all around, the air was busy with bees. He could hear their nonstop, sotto voce hum.
"This is the deal," he said, pulling apart a tiny white flower. "The bee goes in here to get the nectar. . . . It will hit the pollen on the way in. . . ."
The bees were pollinating Galletta's Atlantic County blueberries - as they had Pennsylvania's apples - prompting a sigh of relief among agriculture officials.
Thanks to the weather and an infusion of new bees, "things have worked to our advantage," said Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University apiculture extension associate.
Meanwhile, researchers are seeking to solve the mystery of the disappearing bees, and farmers across the country are testing new ways to keep the bees abuzz.
Just months ago, as officials began to realize the extent of losses among the nation's honeybees from a malady now known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, they feared the worst.
Beekeepers whose hives had been healthy a few weeks earlier opened them to find nearly all the bees gone. Dead.
It was the beginning of the little-known commercial bee season, when hives by the thousands are trucked from the orange groves of Florida to the almond trees of California, then back East.
At Atlantic Blueberries, Galletta's 1,400 acres of Bluecrop, Bluejay, Bluetta and more have nearly four billion blossoms that need pollinating.
He, like most other farmers, depends on honeybees, which can be managed easily because they return every night to a hive. Truck them in, let them do their job, truck them out to the next crop.
Unlike corn, whose pollen is distributed by the wind, nearly three-fourths of all crops need a pollinator - usually a bee.
Agronomists say we owe one bite in three to the work of bees. Pennsylvania alone owes $50 million in crops to bees.
There are always bee losses in winter, about 20 percent, but this year some beekeepers lost as much as 80 percent of their hives.
To stem their losses, beekeepers bought replacements from producers who ratcheted into overdrive, super-feeding their bees to boost reproduction.
Spell Bee in Baxley, Ga., sold them to beekeepers in record numbers, sending out bees by truck and by mail.
Luckily, the weather has been perfect for pollination. From state to state, crop to crop, the winds stayed calm and the days sunny.
"When you have this kind of weather, it doesn't take very many bees to do the job," said Peter Gregg of the New York Apple Association.
The downside is that farmers had to pay more. In Pennsylvania's apple country, prices shot from $45 a hive to $65 - and some growers need hundreds.
Yet no one trusts that the bees will live long.
"Three weeks from now, we don't know. October, we don't know," said Grant Stiles, a New Jersey beekeeper. "This is how unpredictable it is."
Researchers aim to find the answer. Bees have been autopsied. Labs have done genetic testing and screened for bacteria, pathogens, and more than 100 chemicals.
"My life has become CCD," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania's acting state apiarist.
Among a profusion of possibilities, researchers have ruled out cell-phone towers and the "rapture" of bees ascending to heaven - both promulgated by insistent callers and bloggers.
More seriously, mites, the latest big bee pest before CCD, are off the hook. So is the fungus Nosema ceranae, said Jeff Pettis, a bee researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Three top contenders have emerged: some unknown new pathogen, stress among overworked bee colonies, and pesticides. Or, worse, some combination of the three, which would be even more difficult to sort out.
One concern is a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Imidacloprid, used to treat seeds, crops and even lawns, has been shown to impair the memory of bees, which could affect their ability to get back to their hive.
"Many, many fingers are pointing in that direction," Stiles said.
Dave Hackenberg, a western Pennsylvania beekeeper who first alerted officials to the bee problem in the winter, plans to ask his farmers whether they use it.
"We've got to make some decisions about whether we're even going to pollinate some of the vegetables we've pollinated in the past," he said.
Researchers have started amassing data on healthy hives in the hope, oddly enough, that some will succumb to CCD, and they can determine the cause.
Beekeepers are experimenting with new methods, such as sterilizing their equipment by irradiating it, to see whether they help.
A man who speaks of "doing right by the hive," Galletta now farms 30 acres organically.
When his grandfather started the farm in the early 1900s, it was just 60 acres of blueberries, and native pollinators got the job done. Time passed, the business grew, and in the 1940s they got hobbyists to bring in supplemental bees.
Now Galletta works with half a dozen commercial beekeepers to get the 2,000 hives he needs.
For the last three years, he has bought bumblebees - 400 hives this year - from a company in Michigan. He wants to see whether they'll provide a backstop for honeybees, which are not native.
Neal Williams, assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College, has been evaluating how native bees are holding up against sprawl and urbanization. This region has about 335 species, and in a count at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County, he found 55.
"The question is, what are these bees doing?" Williams said. Are they good pollinators, and "can they provide us some insurance" against honeybee losses from CCD?
On smaller farms, at least, "the answer we're finding is largely yes."
In Lehigh County, the Dan Schantz pumpkin farm isn't plowing as deep to minimize disturbing wild bees that nest underground.
It's possible the bees are too busy. Many hives are now headed for Maine's blueberries; others will pollinate New Jersey's cranberries and cucumbers and Pennsylvania pumpkins.
"What I'm holding my breath for," vanEngelsdorp said, "is when the bees come out of blueberries in Maine and what they look like next November. I think this sickness and collapse manifests itself after stress."
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Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.