More than $15 billion in U.S. crops rides each year on the tiny legs of an insect.
The honeybee is the major carrier of pollen for seeded fruits and just about anything that grows on a vine. Everything, in other words, from apples to zucchini.
"If honeybees ceased to exist, two-thirds of the citrus, all of the watermelons, the blueberries, strawberries, pecans and beans would disappear," said Jerry Hayes, apiary inspection chief with the state's Division of Plant Industry.
But now it's the bee itself that is disappearing.
Under attack from a Southeast Asian parasite, vast numbers of the creatures are dying off, worried industry experts say. More than 50 percent of the bees in California, critical to the success of the Golden State's almond crop, have died during the past six months. Frantic growers there have sent out the call around the world, including Florida, for hives.
Not only California is suffering the ravages of the determined pest. As many as 40 percent to 60 percent of the bees nationwide have perished during the same six-month period, experts say.
"It's the biggest crisis that has ever faced the U.S. beekeeping industry," said Laurence Cutts of Chipley, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and a retired apiary inspector with the state Department of Agriculture.
Cutts lost two-thirds of his beehives to the predator, an eight-legged animal no bigger than a grain of salt that attaches itself to a bee and slowly sucks out its internal fluids.
The pest is the varroa mite, which has been in the United States since 1986, when it first showed up in Florida. But the pace of devastation has increased only during the past year. An entire hive can be wiped out within less than a year as the parasites, colloquially known as "vampire mites," lodge in a hive and begin to reproduce.
"The varroa mites have become resistant to the chemicals we use to kill them," said Loxahatchee beekeeper Mark McCoy.
McCoy is one of hundreds of beekeepers from around the country and as far away as Australia who responded to California's need for an additional 400,000 hives. He packed up more than 1,500 hives, housing 30 million-plus bees, last month and shipped them west on two flatbed semis.
"The bees are the only tool we have to pollinate the trees," said Colleen Aguiar, a spokeswoman for the California Almond Board, based in Modesto.
The state grows about 80 percent of the global almond crop, which is some 1 billion pounds of nuts a year. It takes 1.2 million hives to pollinate those groves, Aguiar said.
And almonds are only the beginning of the crisis. Apple growers in Virginia normally call on their own state's beekeepers for pollination help, but not this year, said Troy Fore, executive director of the 1,200-member American Beekeeping Federation Inc., based in Jesup, Ga.
"Now those apple growers have also turned to Florida beekeepers to provide pollination because they have lost bees in Virginia to the mite," Fore said.
But Florida itself needs its bees, and some industry observers suggest it might already have given away too many.
"I really think you will see a crunch here in Florida in a couple of months," said David Hackenberg, who operates hives in Dade City and Lewisburg, Pa. "A lot of guys have lost a lot of bees. The watermelon guys are just starting and they are already scrambling for bees."
Hackenberg and others in the business said the state's largest beekeeper, Horace Bell of DeLand, sold his more than 40,000 hives to companies in California this year and went out of business. That automatically reduces Florida's 200,000 bee colonies by 20 percent.
A spokeswoman at Bell's office said she could not confirm that Bell had left the business, but did say he was "semi-retired." Bell did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The honeybee emergency has not gone unnoticed in the scientific community.
Hundreds of researchers across the globe are looking for a solution, either through new treatments or by breeding mite-resistant bees. So far, the search hasn't yielded much success, said Jay Evans, a geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Md.
"Beekeepers need something this year or next to keep their colonies going," Evans said. "For the longer-term focus, we need to understand how the mites are so successful as parasites and breed bees that have a defense against them."
The loss of bee hives during the past year has been so catastrophic, Evans said, that researchers are questioning whether factors other than the varroa mite are at work.
Officials are scrambling for money to get to the heart of the problem.
The state Agriculture Department is seeking $300,000 from the legislature for bee research. As of Thursday, the request was heading for a conference committee, said Carolee Howe, assistant director of agriculture policy at the Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville.
The American Bee Federation has asked the federal government for help. The group wants the USDA to spend $16 million a year, twice what it now allocates, on bee research.
Howe said the mite problem is getting worse.
"These mites are getting stronger," she said. "One day you will have a healthy hive. The next day your hives can be dead."
Those who work in the bee industry feel that the crops that don't need bees sometimes get more attention than they do. It's also admittedly difficult to evoke a passion for bees in the public mind, which often views them only as a stinging nuisance.
"We have this wonderful insect that can do marvelous things. It's not warm and fuzzy," said Hayes, the state apiary inspection chief. "It's not like a manatee. You can't cuddle and pet it.
"Yet without it, we have a negative impact on how our society eats. Maybe we can help people not love the bee, but at least appreciate it more."
Copyright © 2005, The Palm Beach Post