The American honeybee is in peril, you might have heard, if you are the sort of person who likes a ghost story. In the last year, beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies, another peak in a string of mass die-offs on the scale of plagues: In the last five years, die-offs have hit 34 percent, 46 percent, 29 percent, and 36 percent. That’s more than one in every three colonies each year — whole impeccably networked societies, as big as small cities. In many areas, the figures were worse, and it was hard not to wonder how a species in crisis could possibly sustain annual regional losses as high as 60 percent without fast approaching extinction. ... We’ve been panicking about them nonstop since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. American beekeepers had experienced dramatic die-offs before, as recently as the previous winter in California and in regular bouts with a deadly bug called the varroa mite since the 1980s. But those die-offs would at least produce bodies pathologists could study. Here, the bees had just disappeared. ... Pollination sounds sweet, but the process is not natural in the way we might like to think: bees happily flitting about the countryside from one plant to the next. Honeybees are not even native to North America. They were brought here to work, then bred to work more; first to make honey, then, beginning about 50 years ago, to pollinate our crops. They live, almost exclusively, in what are called managed colonies, in hives we’ve built for them so that we might transport them around the country to industrial farms that need them for pollination. Really, they are livestock. ... We also know that colony-collapse disorder, the thing that kicked off bee panic in the first place, isn’t actually even happening anymore.
Under a microscope, a varroa mite is a monster: armored and hairy, with eight legs and one piercing, sucking mouthpart, primordial in its horror. Since the parasite arrived in the United States from Asia in 1987, the practice of tending bees has grown immeasurably harder. Beekeepers must use harsh chemicals in their hives to kill the mites or risk losing most of their bees within two to three years. About a third of the nation’s honeybees have died each winter over the past decade, and Hayes, an apiary scientist, believes the varroa mite is a major factor in this catastrophe. ... the Internet was abuzz with theories about CCD. It offered a litany of dystopian ecological conspiracies: cell phones interfering with bee navigation, or genetically modified corn syrup, or neonicotinoid pesticides. But no one really knew. ... Traditional pesticides act like chemical backhoes, killing their targets (beetles, weeds, viruses) but harming good things along the way (beneficial insects, birds, fish, humans). RNAi, in theory, works instead like a set of tweezers, plucking its victims with exquisite specificity by clicking into sequences of genetic code unique to that organism.