The Mystery of the Vanishing Bees

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bradley_july30_bees_post.jpg

Illustration by Miguel Jirón


It started, as most beekeeping stories must, with a hive. It was our hive, so far as a wild--that is to say, un-kept--hive could be. It was at the bottom of our driveway, and I walked, ran, biked, and eventually drove by that hive nearly every day of my life until I was 18 and left home. One time, on a dare, I threw rocks at it, though I didn't really want to.

We had a good relationship with those bees; I never got stung. My parents respected them and I respected them, too. So when a neighbor began to complain and finally threatened to call an exterminator on the hive, my father called a beekeeper to help him figure out what to do.

Paul "The Bee Man" Cronshaw is a high school biology teacher and backpacking enthusiast who eats poison oak leafs to build up an immunity. He has been keeping bees for 30 years, even though his wife is deathly allergic and doesn't even like honey.

Colony Collapse Disorder is an X-Files -worthy mystery, with entire hives disappearing in broad daylight, bees dying midflight, and no known cause.

Cronshaw is, as far as I know, the finest bee-man in all of Santa Barbara. So he assessed the situation. Not long after I got a call. "We're keeping them," my father said. "Paul's going to come over tomorrow and set up the boxes. He'll move the hive onto our property. Mom and I are going to be beekeepers."

That was two years ago. In that time nearly half of all honeybees in North America have vanished. The culprit is a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). It's an X-Files -worthy mystery, with entire hives disappearing in broad daylight, bees dying midflight, and no known cause.

Many researchers were quick to blame the varroa mite , which wiped out 45 percent of honeybee populations in late-1980's and '90's. But mites leave evidence, and there was little trail to follow with CCD. Some thought it could be a virus; others blamed radiation from cell phone towers; still others claimed, perhaps appropriately, alien abduction.

bradley_july30_hive_post.jpg

Illustration by Miguel Jirón

What we're learning now--detailed in a paper published in Scientific American --is that there is no single cause of CCD; that the disorder is not one problem but many working in concert to undermine the very social and physiological fabric of hive society. As Andrew Coté, co-founder of New York City Beekeepers, told me recently, "Asking to explain what causes CCD is like asking what causes poverty."

The silver lining to the CCD disaster is the media coverage, and public outcry, that have followed. Bees probably hit their lowest point in the American consciousness in the early 1990's--the mite disaster wiped out nearly half the population, then Africanized "killer" honeybees invaded, then Macaulay Culkin's character in the film My Girl died from bee stings. Nobody really cared for bees back then.

But it's 2009. We've gone green, and bees are having a moment. Haagen Daz started a campaign to raise awareness for all that bees do for us (such as adding honey to Haagen Daz ice cream), and bee-lovers have a Twitter feed called Tweehive , in which participants attempt to "replicate as closely as possible the behavior of a beehive."

The actual purpose of both efforts--beyond selling ice cream and spreading bee love--is hard to parse. What's more important, for the bees at least, is the extraordinary rise of full-blown backyard beekeepers: from New Yorkers keeping bees on rooftops (Coté: "It's a bandwagon to jump on, just like after 9/11 everyone threw an American flag on everything."), to the Obama's hive and vegetable garden, to my parents' casual bee-rescue.

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Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor. He lives in New York.

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