They Figured Out What Was Killing the Bees!

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Buzz on, honeybees.Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

The plight of the honeybee, which saw a 20 to 40 percent "colony collapse" since 2006 in the U.S. alone, has confused scientists for years. Who would want to hurt a sweet, industrious honeybee that only wants to make you delicious honey and maybe insert its stinger, ever so gently, into your skin? Scientists suspected that pesticides or genetically modified food might have caused the troubling phenomenon, best chronicled in Elizabeth Kolbert's 2007 New Yorker article. But there were no real answers until military scientists and entomologists teamed up and made a breakthrough: In every colony collapsed, they found the combined effects of a fungus and a virus, neither of which were deadly on their own. The two research teams only connected after the brother of one of the Army's microbiologists saw a TV show about the University of Montana's "Bee Alert" team and realized he had the lead investigator's business card from a previous encounter.

Like any compelling murder mystery, there are still some threads left open. Scientists aren't sure how exactly the virus and fungus interact or what makes the bees fly off alone in seemingly random directions when they're close to dying, a factor that complicates bee autopsies. Jerry Bromenshenk, the head of the "Bee Alert" team, shared a couple of theories with the Times: "The viral-fungal combination disrupts memory or navigating skills and the bees simply get lost. Another possibility ... is a kind of insect insanity." Werner Herzog, we think we just found the subject of your next insane-animal documentary.

Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery [NYT]
Dept. of Entomology: Stung [NYer]