Buzz Kill

Bees go missing


Beekeepers in at least 24 states reported a huge number of empty honeybee hives last spring. Since honeybees are the hard-working pollinators of many American crops, that is very bad news.

Theories about what might be causing this "colony collapse disorder" have sprung up everywhere, with varying degrees of credibility. The British newspaper The Independent misreported a scientific study and suggested that the radio signals from mobile phones might be responsible. More seriously, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists named another possible culprit: biotech crops.

But the epidemic of bee death was not confined to the biotechnology-friendly United States. Hives collapsed in biotech-free Europe too. The head of the German beekeepers' association reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations in his country. One German beekeeper publicly blamed biotech corn, even though it represents only 0.06 percent of the total German crop. Beekeepers in Britain, Spain, Poland, Greece, Croatia, Switzerland, Italy, and Portugal also have reported heavy losses.

Now new progress has been made on cracking the case of the disappearing insects. Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University ground up bees and then screened all the DNA they found, including DNA from any disease organisms that might have infected the bees. In September, Science published their metagenomic study, which found an acute paralysis virus in 96 percent of collapsed hives. It was a new viral infection that killed the bees, not biotech crops or cell phones after all.