Insecticide to blame?
Beekeeper David Hackenberg pried open a wooden bee box behind his Milton-based apiary. Italian honeybees - the docile bee equivalent to golden retrievers - swarmed around him in a cloud. He squeezed his smoker and a plume of gray smoke surrounded the confused bees, allowing him to pull out a bee-covered comb.
"This hive's a goner," he said.
By this time of year, Mr. Hackenberg said, the comb should have been saturated with honey.
"I'll be lucky to get six or seven pounds out of this, and that's not leaving anything for the bees," he said.
The hive is one of many that has been afflicted with colony collapse disorder, the mysterious bee disease that has baffled scientists and threatened beekeepers' way of life since it was discovered in late 2006.
Mr. Hackenberg alone has already lost $450,000 to it, and there's no end in sight.
The laundry list of the disorder's possible causes is enough to make any researcher's head spin. Mites, parasites, environmental change-related stress, malnutrition, unknown pathogens and radiation from cellular phones are just a handful of hypotheses.
But while no single answer has stuck, bee farmers like Mr. Hackenberg know one thing for sure - their bees are dying by the thousands.
"Some guys have already gone out of business," he said.
Mr. Hackenberg, who has been a beekeeper for 45 years and is highly respected among his colleagues, has his own theory as to where the disorder is coming from.
Bees have always succumbed to disease, he says. Viruses have always been in the air. Most recently, scientists at Penn State University uncovered Israeli acute paralysis virus - a newly discovered illness that paralyzes bees before killing them - in a plethora of dead bees.
But Mr. Hackenberg thinks disease is merely the end result of the disorder, not its root cause.
"It's like AIDS in humans," Mr. Hackenberg said. "People with AIDS die of pneumonia, but that doesn't mean pneumonia is the problem. Something has broken down the bees' immune systems."
Mr. Hackenberg said he thinks that "something" has to do with neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of insecticide that acts as a neurotoxin to insects but is supposedly safe for humans.
"Neonicotinoids are systemic," he said. "They grow up right through the seed and get absorbed in the plant. And when bees come to collect pollen, they bring traces of it back to the hive."
Neonicotinoids don't kill adult bees, Mr. Hackenberg said. Instead, he said he believes they affect bees' offspring - hampering new bees' ability to gather food and fend off illness.
Mr. Hackenberg added he and other beekeepers have experienced firsthand the damage neonicotinoids can do.
"As soon as we take our bees to crops where farmers are using this stuff, the problem gets worse," he said.
In total, Mr. Hackenberg has lost more than 2,000 hives to the disorder. It has crippled his honey production and forced him to rent additional bees to make good on his pollination contracts.
Like many American beekeepers, Mr. Hackenberg travels to various crops with his hives. Apples, oranges, almonds, pumpkins, cotton, alfalfa, and countless other crops rely on bees' unique ability to pollinate.
It's a little-known practice Mr. Hackenberg said most beekeepers don't mind has gone under the radar.
"Farmers say we're the shirttail of their crops," he said.
Mr. Hackenberg has a saying: "One in every three bites of food you eat comes from bees."
It's a potentially scary thought, considering the dark cloud the disorder has cast over the beekeeping community.
Without bees, Mr. Hackenberg said, people would be forced to go without many of their favorite foods.
Mr. Hackenberg cracked open a second bee box, just 30 feet away from the disorder-ridden hive.
This time the bees were healthy.
"You see this?" he asked, lifting up a comb heavy with honey.
A thriving hive is a rare sight these days, according to Mr. Hackenberg, who has tried something no one else has - something perhaps no one else has the courage to try.
He has begun radiating his bee boxes and equipment with cobalt, a gamma-ray-emitting chemical Mr. Hackenberg said wipes out bee-threatening bacteria and viruses.
"It's nasty stuff," he said.
Still, it seems to be working. While bees in his untreated hives have had mixed results, the bees in Mr. Hackenberg's cobalt-treated hives are flourishing.
"Smell this," Mr. Hackenberg said, holding out two combs. One, he said, had been irradiated with cobalt - the other had not. The cobalt-free comb had a sweet and sour smell reminiscent of decay. But its cobalt-treated counterpart was odor-free.
Mr. Hackenberg said a state bee inspector came to visit his apiary on Friday.
"He said he hasn't seen anything like this. These bees are healthy," he said.
If Mr. Hackenberg's neonicotinoid hypothesis is correct, though, the cobalt won't prove to be a long-term solution. As far as he can tell, there are only two ways to fix the disorder: farmers will have to either stop using neonicotinoids, or scientists will have to breed disorder-resistant bees.
Several months ago, Mr. Hackenberg wrote a four-page letter to 40 growers he works with, warning them about the possible link between the disorder and neonicotinoids.
The letter, he said, made it to the halls of Congress.
But with big business heavily invested in neonicotinoids, Mr. Hackenberg is skeptical anything will be done.
For now, he's simply hoping his bees will stay healthy.
"I don't know what's going to happen in a couple of months," he said, squeezing his smoker once more. "Knock on wood."