Since 2006, 40 to 60 percent of all honeybee colonies in the United States have suffered a complete collapse. Experts have been scrambling to find the source of the problem. Cell phone radiation, pesticides, climate change and genetically modified foods have all been blamed for the massive bee die-off. Now the New York Times reports that scientists may have discovered the culprit.

This recent discovery has come from a unique liaison. For the first time since the 1940s, scientists and the military have combined forces to get to the bottom of the bee dilemma. Jerry Bromenshenk is a bee expert who has worked with the military to use bees to detect land mines. Now he heads a team of authorities made of up Homeland Security and academics called the Bee Alert team. Working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center near Baltimore, the team has revealed that a virus combined with a fungus may be responsible for the bee die-off.

Experts already knew that dying bee colonies had a large presence of disease organisms, but the disease itself has been previously unknown. Bromenshenk shares that the virus-fungus combination has been found to be present in every decimated bee colony the team studied. As Bromenshenk told the New York Times, “It’s chicken and egg in a sense — we don’t know which [virus or fungus] came first. They’re co-factors, that’s all we can say at the moment. They’re both present in all these collapsed colonies.” At present, experts are merely certain that their combined presence proves completely lethal.

When bees are infected by the combo of virus and fungus, they fly off in every direction from the colony to die alone. Scientists think they may suffer from “bee insanity” in their final moments. This has made doing mini-bee autopsies difficult. Instead, experts learned to make a bee mash paste that best enabled them to draw these conclusions. Using a mortar and pestle, they were able to analyze bee mush to come to some innovative conclusions.

The military assisted in the project by providing equipment used in biological warfare scenarios. As the New York Times writes, “the system searches out the unique proteins in a sample, then identifies a virus — or other microscopic life form, like bacteria — based on the proteins it is known to contain.” This equipment was extremely helpful to researchers because it allowed them to find what they didn’t even know they were looking for — in this case, a virus-fungus combination.

One solution experts are weighing is a possible anti-fungal protection for bee colonies to use when the virus is detected. While Bromenshenk and his team caution that they haven’t completely solved the honeybee death mystery, hopes are high that this is the much-needed breakthrough entomologists — and likely, bees — haven been waiting for.

For further reading: