By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: October 9, 2010
HUMAN beings and honeybees go way back, probably to some unrecorded, fateful day thousands of years ago when a forager stumbled upon some golden goo in the woods, stuck a finger in to taste, and realized that the bears were on to something good.
These days, the relationship is also big business. Agriculture, especially for crops like almonds, depends heavily on industrial-strength pollination services — itinerant bees and beekeepers for hire, roving from farm to farm, blossom to blossom.
So the stakes and the anxiety were enormous when bees started dying by the millions about four years ago, a phenomenon given the name “colony collapse.” Last week, a team of scientists from academia and the United States Army’s chemical and biological research group announced that they had identified a possible culprit: a combination fungus and virus.
But the naming of a suspect still leaves a swarm of questions about where bees, and people, go from here.
Are colonies still collapsing?
Unfortunately, yes. Dead colonies were reported in Florida in January and California in February, and some bee experts fear that the rate of decline could be as severe as in the initial days of the outbreak, in late 2006.
How badly has the bee population been damaged?
The numbers are rough estimates, but huge by any measure. About 20 percent to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States have been destroyed, which adds up to perhaps 50 billion individual bees. Colonies that survive can bounce back in as little as a month or two, but a dark cloud is hiding there too: researchers and beekeepers fear that surviving bees could be disease carriers, leading to further outbreaks.