In 1872, a merchant ship called the Mary Celeste set sail from New York, and four weeks later was found by sailors aboard another vessel to be moving erratically in the Atlantic Ocean 400 miles east of the Azores. Curious, those sailors boarded the Mary Celeste, only to find nary a soul. The cargo was intact, as were supplies of food and water. But there was no sign of the seven-man crew, the captain, or his wife and daughter, who had gone along for the journey. To this day, what turned that brigantine into a ghost ship remains a maritime mystery.
It was with a nod to this history that when bees suddenly and mysteriously began disappearing en masse in Britain several years ago, the phenomenon came to be known there as Mary Celeste Syndrome. Beekeepers in this country were similarly plagued. Honeybees, those versatile workhorses of pollination, were vanishing by the millions. They would leave their hives in search of nectar and pollen, and somehow never find their way home. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the flight of the bees was given a more prosaic name: colony collapse disorder.
What caused it remains as much of a head-scratcher as the fate of the Mary Celeste, but the serious consequences for American agriculture were clear. And thus it draws the attention of this week’s Retro Report, part of a series of video documentaries examining major news stories from the past and analyzing what has happened since.
The centrality of bees to our collective well-being is hard to overstate. They pollinate dozens of crops: apples, blueberries, avocados, soybeans, strawberries, you name it. Without honeybees, almond production in California would all but disappear. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly one-third of everything that Americans eat depends on bee pollination. Billions of dollars are at stake each year for farmers, ranchers and, of course, beekeepers.
But in the fall and winter of 2006-07, something strange happened. As Dave Hackenberg, a beekeeper in central Pennsylvania and in Florida, recalled for Retro Report, he went to his 400 hives one morning and found most of them empty. Queen bees remained, but worker bees had vanished.
Mr. Hackenberg’s distress resounded in apiaries across the country. Some of them lost up to 90 percent of their colonies. Not that mass bee disappearances were entirely new. They had occurred from time to time for well over a century. But as best as could be told, no previous collapse matched this one in magnitude. It became a national sensation, down to predictable references in television news reports to, yes, the latest “buzz.”
Less predictable was how to explain the catastrophe. Theories abounded. Some suggested that cellphone towers had disoriented the bees. Others said the fault lay with genetically modified crops. More likely, entomologists said, a pathogen might be to blame. Yet other experts pointed damning fingers at pesticides, notably a group known as neonicotinoids, which chemically resemble nicotine. Neonics, as they are known for short, are “systemic” chemicals, meaning that they circulate throughout a plant and reach its leaves or flowers, where bees do their work. One underlying premise is that the pesticides cloud the bees’ brains, leaving them in a haze and short-circuiting their sense of how to return home.
The European Union was sufficiently impressed by the evidence against neonics that in 2013 it ordered a two-year ban on their use. But France had imposed a similar ban for certain crops as far back as 1999, and yet its disappearing-bee woes did not end.
A highly probable villain, some scientists say, is a parasitic mite with the singularly unsavory name of Varroa destructor. It burrows into a bee and compromises its immune system. Jeffery S. Pettis, an Agriculture Department entomologist, said in testimony before a House subcommittee in April that “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague.” There is, too, a possibility that honeybees are simply overworked. From season to season, colonies are routinely trucked around the country to pollinate crops. It just may be, some specialists in this field say, that the bees are like many modern workers: They are stressed, and get tuckered out.
With so many theories in play, several federal agencies weighed in last year, with a joint study that effectively checked the “all of the above” box. A mélange of the various factors was behind the colonies’ devastation, the agencies’ report said, putting no more weight on one cause than on any other.
While Mary Celeste Syndrome — it sounds more lyrical than colony collapse disorder, does it not? — caught everyone’s attention, it is not at the core of concerns over bees today. Colonies still die, for a variety of reasons, but there have been fewer instances of the mass collapse that caused so much anguish in 2006 and ’07. Beekeepers have replaced their dead hives. Experts interviewed by Retro Report seemed unperturbed by thoughts that honeybees were about to disappear.
Rather, what worries them is a gradual, steady shrinkage of the honeybee population over the years. Two decades ago, the United States had more than three million colonies; now it is down to an estimated 2.4 million, the Agriculture Department says. And more bees seem to be dying — from all causes, not just colony collapse — in the normal course of what are referred to as the “winter loss” and the “fall dwindle.” Where annual bee losses were once in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent, they are now more on the order of 30 percent. The fear is that this dying-off is too great for the country’s ever-expanding agricultural needs. That, specialists like Dr. Pettis say, is what would really sting.
The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Reporthas a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle