Without a trace

The word ecology, in daily parlance, is used as a noun, adjective, adverb, and, if pressed hard, could likely be turned into a verb. Coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, it is commonly used to define the symbiotic relationship between all living things and the natural environment. For all of its hardiness, what it describes is actually a very fragile environmental balance achieved over countless millennia, one that can easily be disrupted, the consequences often unforeseeable.

A recent example of an ecological shift is the disappearance of honeybees.

It's a mystery worthy of a CSI investigative team of entomologists. The empty hives have been likened to a crime scene where no bodies can be found except for the queen and a few green bees who are ravaged by disease. In the societal structure of bees, it is unheard of that the worker bees would abandon the hive or the queen.

Last fall, bee keeper James Doan, of Hamlin N.Y., first began to notice that whole colonies had vanished. Without a trace. He looked for dead bodies in the vicinity. Nothing. Only the honey remained, untouched. He reported that at the beginning of the 2007 pollination season, more than half of his 4,300 hives were gone.

Bee keepers on the East Coast are reporting losses of between 50 to 90 percent, an unprecedented number. Bee populations are also reported missing in Europe and Brazil. Scientists call it "colony collapse disorder" (CCD), and it has spread to 24 states. Many of the keepers worry that this collapse is shaping up to be a honeybee catastrophe that could disrupt the food supply.

Honeybees are cross-pollinators and participate in the reproduction of plants. It is estimated that honeybees pollinate every third bite of food we take, to include the majority of fruits, many vegetables, as well as alfalfa and clover which are fed to livestock. Bees help generate some $14 billion in produce. Some scientists regard the honeybee as a "keystone indicator species" signaling environmental degradation.

Though records of empty hives go as far back as the late 1800's, this event (CCD) is unprecedented. In the past, beekeepers have dubbed past declines as "spring dwindle" or "autumn collapse." Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the acting Penn State apiarist, has referred to the current manifestation as the "AIDS of bees." It's clear, vanEnglesdorp said, that "there is an immune suppression."

Doan reportedly believes that the culprit is pesticides. Others point to genetically modified crops, specifically those with a gene for a bacterial toxin called Bt, which, some speculate, weakens the bees' immune systems. Since there is no national database of bio-engineered crops, there is no precise way of assessing the impact of genetically modified food on bees. The Sierra Club has stated, "If genetically engineered crops are killing honeybees, a moratorium on their planting should be considered."

Other hypotheses include reports from the United Kingdom speculating that cell phone transmissions might be involved. And there are the usual suspects to include viral and fungal infections.

At this point, no one knows.

Honeybees, like many other cross-pollinator species &

wasps, beetles, birds, bats and butterflies &

have been declining worldwide for the better part of the last century. Feral honeybee populations, according to some reports, have declined in the U.S. by 90 percent in the past 50 years. This is called the shrinking "pollination portfolio." A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report stated that there is direct evidence of the decline of some pollinator species in North America, species responsible for pollinating three-quarters of flowering plants. Europeans have documented a parallel decline in their natural pollinators for years.

In the end, scientists may discover that there is an explanation for CCD. But then again, it may be that while the phenomenon can be described, documented, and studied, like the incremental decline of countless other species due to global warming, there may be no remedy that will alter the loss of our honeybees. Just as there is no solution to the extinction in slow motion of the polar bear, another species that is an indicator of significant environmental change.

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