Honey, I'm Gone

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," just before Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route, all the dolphins in the world disappear, leaving behind just the message: "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Now, around the world, honeybees are vanishing en masse, leaving their humans engaged in a furious attempt to figure out the meaning of their exodus. Entire colonies are following the Shakespearean stage direction, "Exeunt omnes." They're flying off and not returning. Commercial beekeepers open their hives and find them empty except for a queen, a few immature bees and abundant honey and pollen. The rest of the bees are simply gone, leaving behind not even dead bodies.

A third of our food supply -- including much of the boredom-relieving stuff, from cranberries to cucumbers -- is dependent on animal pollinators like the honeybee. As a result, this mystery is rapidly joining the all-star ranks of millennial end-time run-for-your-lives threats, right up there with Y2K, mad cow disease, West Nile virus, SARS and avian flu.

Of equal note is the way the bees are setting a new standard in human emotional resonance. Absolutely no one yet knows why the bees are checking out, though not for lack of abundant effort on the part of the world's scientists. This dearth of data allows us to project our greatest anxieties onto the bees.

If what you're searching for is an entire spectrum of moral lessons regarding the evils of human behavior, this crisis is even better than global warming. If you hate globalization, then you will doubtless see its evils as patent in the disappearance of the bees. Pesticides? Genetically modified foods? Those, too, are convenient hypotheses in the absence of contradictory information. Even cellphones have been offered as an explanation. If you're driven crazy by them, then so must be the bees. Isn't it obvious?

Our fuzzy, hard-working, sweetness-producing icons have become our most powerful Rorschach test.

As go the bees, so go our hopes and fears for the future.

'Mad Bee Disease'

Jeff Pettis reports that he has become one of the most popular soccer dads in the Washington metropolitan area.

"My wife says she's tired of hearing about it," says the co-leader of the huge national research group working on "colony collapse disorder," as the phenomenon is known. An estimated quarter of the country's 2.4 million colonies of Apis mellifera have been lost since winter. Similar reports are pouring in from Spain to Germany to Brazil to Taiwan.

Pettis is a man in the right place at the right time. He heads the Bee Research Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Service at the Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. His group includes scientists from Columbia, Penn State, the University of Illinois, North Carolina State, the Florida Department of Agriculture and a host of other entities.

"Most people may not be able to tell the difference between a yellow jacket and a bumblebee," he says. But now, as the news of the honeybees captures the popular imagination, "people who never even knew what I did before come up to me on the soccer sidelines and say, 'Hey, I want to find out what's really going on. Tell me the real story.' "

"I tell them, 'We're still working on it.' "


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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