ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
This spring, many farmers, beekeepers and scientists are worried. This time of year, as trees are blossoming, farmers hire beekeepers to move their hives from orchard to field to pollinate the flowers. But this spring, bee colonies across North America are disappearing and no one really knows why.
Some farmers are worried their crops won't get pollinated and they won't have fruits and vegetables to sell this summer. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports that farmers joined beekeepers and scientists on Capitol Hill today to voice their concerns.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Far away from orchards and fields, a man-made beehive sits on the wooden dais of this congressional hearing room. It's a small white box with frames that hang in it like folders in a hanging file. Each frame holds a wax comb. Commercial beekeeper Gene Brandy(ph) pulls out a frame to show the congressmen.
Mr. GENE BRANDY (Commercial Beekeeper): Actually, this would be a brood comb...
Unidentified Man: What's a brood comb?
Mr. BRANDY: This would be the type of honeycomb that the queen bee would lay the eggs in.
Unidentified Man: Okay.
Mr. BRANDY: And the eggs hatch into little larva, and they pupate. And after 21 days, a baby bee hatches out.
Unidentified Man: Right.
Mr. BRANDY: Our honeycomb...
SEABROOK: Brandy is showing this to North Carolina Democrat Bob Etheridge and California Democrat Dennis Cardoza, the chairman of this agriculture subcommittee. Five beekeepers and farmers from all over the country sit in front of the committee, and each one has a story like this one, from David Ellison(ph) of Ortonville, Montana. Ellison just took a census of each of his roughly 2,000 bee colonies.
Mr. DAVID ELLISON (Beekeeper): You'd open the hive, there was honey in the hive, frames of honey, there was no bees at all. And there was pollen in there, maybe a little bit of patch or brood that the bees just up and said well, we're out of here. There's some wrong with it. We're gone.
Professor MAY BERENBAUM (Etymology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): The really mystifying thing is that there are no bodies. That's what's really puzzling. There are no dead bees, there are just - bees are gone.
SEABROOK: This is May Berenbaum, the head of etymology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Berenbaum says the scientific community is scrambling to figure out what's going on here. So far, there are lots of ideas. Could be mites or other parasites, a virus or a new stress of some kind. Many blame pesticides. Beekeeper Jim Done(ph) of Hamlin, New York, does. He lost more than half his bees this winter. That's thousands of colonies and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Done blames a pesticide called GAUCHO because it's known to cause disorientation in insects.
Mr. JIM DONE (Beekeeper): And that would lead me to believe that these bees are flying off and just are not able to come back to those hives to find where they belong, and bees are social insects and they die on their own.
SEABROOK: And there's more adding to the problems of commercial bees, for example, as scientist Berenbaum puts it...
Prof. BERENBAUM: Bees are living in 19th century housing, comparable to dairy barns without electricity and running water.
SEABROOK: Remember that little white beehive sitting up on the dais? That was invented by a Philadelphia minister in the mid-19th century, says Berenbaum, and it's still the standard. It may compound the problem because it forces bees to live so packed together.
Her calls for increased federal funding for honeybee research were echoed loudly by the beekeepers here today. And all the scientists and farmers tried to drive home one thing for these congressmen: the size of this problem. It's not just the honey industry we're talking about here, though it is getting hit hard too. It's practically the whole of American agriculture.
Think about what you had for breakfast this morning - cereal? Fruit? A bagel? Most orchards, fields of grain and vegetable crops are pollinated by honeybees. Even the milk you pour in your cereal comes from cows that eat grain. If honeybee populations continue to disappear in such huge numbers, today's witnesses said, it could have a dramatic effect on crop yields and ultimately the nation's food supply.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.