The first reports surfaced in 2004, although at the time they didn't attract much attention. That changed last fall when more outbreaks - and more deaths - were reported. Scientists leaped into action using the most sophisticated tools at their disposal.
We expect nothing less when a mysterious and fatal disease appears somewhere in our country, at least when the disease infects humans. But in this case, the victims were honeybees.
Yet the scientific full-court press brought to bear on colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that has decimated hives across the country, may prove to be a model for mounting future efforts against human illnesses. Last week, the approach yielded its first fruit.
A multi-disciplinary investigation by top scientific talent may seem like a lot of effort to invest in an insect's problems, even one that produces honey. But honeybees also play a crucial role in pollinating more than 90 crops, from almonds to apples. One federal study concluded that bees add about $15 billion in value to the food supply each year. As bee colonies have collapsed nationwide, the cost of renting hives alone has skyrocketed.
Scientists first looked to history. There have been several other instances of large-scale bee die-offs over the past century. The causes of some remain unknown. But colony collapse disorder is different. Unlike past epidemics, hives affected by the new disorder were empty of worker bees, which meant there were no dead bees to test for infection. In some cases, the only things left behind were queen bees and honey, and some affected hives were vacant.
Last week, researchers published the results of their latest effort to unravel this mystery. It involved genetic screening of material taken from infected and unaffected hives. They used the same technology that was used to sequence the human genome and decode Neanderthal DNA.
If this were a suspense novel or an episode of "CSI Bee," what killed the bees would have been clear. But real life is more complicated. Scientists found strong evidence that a microbe called Israeli acute paralysis virus is associated with the disorder. Colonies where traces of the virus were found were 65 times more likely to have collapsed than those without it.
But IAPV isn't the only culprit. Other well-recognized factors, including a parasite called varroa mites, also may play a role, possibly by weakening bee immune systems.
The ability of this new technology to shift through large amounts of genetic material and isolate a particular virus proves that a similar approach could help pinpoint the cause or causes of human disease. That's crucial because new and newly mutated diseases constantly emerge around the world to pose new threats. Solving the mystery of mass honeybee deaths could point the way toward preserving important plant species - and saving human lives - in the future.
Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.