It's not a sweet time to be a honeybee.
The industrious wonders that pollinate much of the nation's food and churn out millions of pounds of honey have long been under siege by mites, pesticides and hostile Africanized bees.
Now they are fast falling victim to a new, virulent mystery malady called "colony collapse disorder, " or CCD, that is wiping out bees by the millions in at least 23 states, including Florida.
Experts believe the disorder compromises the bees' immune systems. Inexplicably, at the end, they flee their hives and die.
The nation's beekeepers are scrambling to rebuild colonies in time for the next pollination and honey season.
"The potential impact is enormous, " said Dan Weaver of Texas, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "It clearly does have nationwide scope."
Anecdotal evidence about CCD is growing, said Dennis van Engelsdorp, Pennsylvania's state apiarist, or bee specialist, and one of the lead researchers nationwide in the hunt for a cure for CCD.
Van Engelsdorp said he has been monitoring 10 beekeepers in 12 states with about 20,000 colonies. Three quarters of those keepers have experienced CCD. Some have lost 30 percent of their colonies and others up to 80 percent.
"We can't maintain this level of loss for very long, " van Engelsdorp said. "It happens quickly, and there is nothing we can do."
Little is known, he said, but this: Something seems to be breaking down the bees' immune systems.
The culprit might be a combination of factors including pesticides, or perhaps the bees' archenemy, the varroa mite, an unknown disease, or even a known disease breaking out at a more severe rate.
Beekeepers have seen die-offs in past years, van Engelsdorp said, but never like this.
With bee supplies dwindling, farmers who need bees to pollinate their crops are paying a premium price.
As experts from academia and the bee business attack the problem, few could be more interested in the outcome than Florida beekeeper David Hackenberg of Dade City.
One day last fall, Hackenberg set out 400 hives, just back from pollinating pumpkins, apples and blueberries in the Northeast.
"When I unloaded them, they were a truckload of good-looking, boiling-over beehives, " said Hackenberg, who makes his living selling bees and renting them out for pollination and honey.
When he checked on the hives a month later, they were empty. The bees were gone. Not dead in the hive, just gone.
"It was utterly amazing" he said.
By the end of January, he'd lost 1,900 of his 2,900 colonies to CCD.
Like others nationwide, he's rebuilding the colonies, installing new queens, feeding the bees sugar and pollen substitute.
By the end of March, he hopes to send 2,800 hives to pollinate the blueberry crop in Maine.
So far, Hackenberg said, colony collapse disorder has cost his small family operation about $350,000.
It's a scene being repeated in many states, bee experts say. But there are no precise records for state or national losses to CCD. South Florida's biggest beekeeper says he hasn't been bothered so far.
Florida, which has about 200,000 of the country's 2 million commercial bee hives, may have lost 30 to 40 percent of its hives to CCD within the last six months, said Jerry Hayes, the Florida Department of Agriculture's chief apiarist and state expert on CCD.
If these were chickens or cows, Hayes said, people would be "stumbling all over themselves" to solve the problem, Hayes said.
Without bee pollination, the United States would lose billions in crops.
Bees affect foods from hamburgers to blueberries, Hayes said. Even the alfalfa that is part of a dairy cow's diet has to be pollinated, as does the clover that beef cows eat.
The flower bloom on some varieties of fruit may require 10 to 15 visits from bees to insure that each seed in the bloom is properly pollinated, Hayes said. With insufficient pollination, an apple tree, for example, can produce some pieces of fruit that are deformed and not suitable for the supermarket.
CCD is not the bees' only enemy.
Some Florida beekeepers with hives in or near orange and grapefruit groves have had bees killed by insecticides sprayed to combat the Asian psyllid, an insect that spreads the citrus industry's latest major threat, "tree-greening" disease. Tree-greening deforms fruit, makes it taste awful and kills the tree.
With better coordination between growers and beekeepers, Hayes said, that problem should diminish.
In some areas of the state, growing numbers of Africanized honeybees have taken over colonies of their more gentle cousins. The only way to control the more aggressive Africanized bees is to kill them, Hayes said, or, in a few cases, to replace the queen and continue trying to manage the colony.
Florida is involved in joint research on CCD with the University of Pennsylvania, state and federal departments of agriculture, the beekeeping industry, and others.
CLOSE TO HOME
Lee Del Signore has heard the tales of disaster from upstate. But the veteran South Miami-Dade beekeeper says that while he is wary of the news of stricken bee colonies, he doesn't worry about the fate of his own hives, which number close to 4,000.
"Sure, I've heard about it. But we haven't had any problems down here, " said Del Signore, who has his own theories about the causes of the mysterious disorder -- the main thread being that bees, like people, can be pushed to a breaking point.
"People expose their bees to a lot of stress, " said Del Signore, 55. That includes shipping honeybees far from home, sometimes as far as California, which has a lucrative agricultural industry and where growers generally pay more per hive -- as high as $150 apiece -- to have bees pollinate their fields, he said.
The going rate in Homestead is about $35 a hive.
Del Signore does not offer his services much farther north than De Soto and Indian River counties -- even with the prospect that his healthy bees may be more in demand this year because of the CCD.
"We don't take them too far out, " said Del Signore, then added: "But maybe I would if someone up there offered $100 a hive."
COMMERCIAL BEEKEEPING AT A GLANCE
* Number of bees in a healthy hive: 50,000 or more.
* Commercial beekeepers in Florida with more than 200 hives: 171
* Beekeepers with 11 to 200 hives: 283
* Hobbyist beekeepers with 10 or fewer hives: 567
* Researchers, teachers and other similar Florida beekeepers: 14
* Total commercial, sideline and hobbyist hives in Florida: 279,328 as of December 2006
* Estimated commercial hives in the U.S.: 2 million
* Estimated commercial beekeepers in the U.S.: just over 1,000.
* Estimated revenue from Florida honey sales: $8.5 million to $10 million.
* Estimated revenue from beekeeping nationwide: $550 million.
Sources: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; American Beekeeping Federation