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That's why scientists like Pettis are working hard to figure out what's bugging the bees. Agricultural pesticides were an obvious suspect--specifically a popular new class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which seem to affect bees and other insects even at what should be safe doses. Other researchers focused on bee-killing pests like the accurately named Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that has ravaged honeybee colonies since it was accidentally introduced into the U.S. in the 1980s. Others still have looked at bacterial and viral diseases. The lack of a clear culprit only deepened the mystery and the fear, heralding what some greens call a "second silent spring," a reference to Rachel Carson's breakthrough 1962 book, which is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement. A quote that's often attributed to Albert Einstein became a slogan: "If the bee disappears from the surface of the globe, man would have no more than four years to live."
One problem: experts doubt that Einstein ever said those words, but the misattribution is characteristic of the confusion that surrounds the disappearance of the bees, the sense that we're inadvertently killing a species that we've tended and depended on for thousands of years. The loss of the honeybees would leave the planet poorer and hungrier, but what's really scary is the fear that bees may be a sign of what's to come, a symbol that something is deeply wrong with the world around us. "If we don't make some changes soon, we're going to see disaster," says Tom Theobald, a beekeeper in Colorado. "The bees are just the beginning."
If the honeybee is a victim of natural menaces like viruses and unnatural ones like pesticides, it's worth remembering that the bee itself is not a natural resident of the continent. It was imported to North America in the 17th century, and it thrived until recently because it found a perfect niche in a food system that demands crops at ever cheaper prices and in ever greater quantities. That's a man-made, mercantile ecosystem that not only has been good for the bees and beekeepers but also has meant steady business and big revenue for supermarkets and grocery stores.
Jim Doan has been keeping bees since the age of 5, but the apiary genes in his family go back even further. Doan's father paid his way to college with the proceeds of his part-time beekeeping, and in 1973 he left the bond business to tend bees full time. Bees are even in the Doan family's English coat of arms. Although Jim went to college with the aim of becoming an agriculture teacher, the pull of the beekeeping business was too great.
For a long time, that business was very good. The family built up its operation in the town of Hamlin, in western New York, making money from honey and from pollination contracts with farmers. At the peak of his business, Doan estimates he was responsible for pollinating 1 out of 10 apples grown in New York, running nearly 6,000 hives, one of the biggest such operations in the state. He didn't mind the inevitable stings--"you have to be willing to be punished"--and he could endure the early hours. "We made a lot of honey, and we made a lot of money," he says.