(Fortune) -- Scientists investigating the recent disappearance of U.S. honeybees have linked a little-known virus to the die-off, suggesting that a novel infection capable of wiping out hives has spread widely among America's bees. The researchers also reported circumstantial evidence that the virus may have been introduced to the U.S. via bees imported from Australia.
As reported last month in Fortune, the disappearing bee syndrome, dubbed colony collapse disorder, or CCD, threatens many commercial beekeepers with ruinous losses. That in turn could cause major problems for U.S. growers, who rely on honeybees to pollinate nearly a hundred fruit and vegetable crops. Without trucked-in hives to blanket flowering plants with bees, farmers' yields of everything from apples to melons to zucchinis would plummet. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has estimated that CCD has the potential to cause a $15 billion direct loss of crop production and $75 billion in indirect losses.
The scientists, whose study was published online today by the journal Science, stressed that they haven't proved CCD is caused by the viral suspect, Israeli acute paralysis virus, or IAPV. (Its name reflects IAPV's discovery by Israeli researchers, not its place of origin, which is unknown.) The fact that the virus is usually found in colonies devastated by CCD may merely mean that it is a symptom rather than a root cause; just as rare infections often hit immune-suppressed AIDS patients, bees may get infected by IAPV when an unknown factor hammers their immune systems, precipitating CCD.
The researchers also detected IAPV in apparently healthy honeybees from Australia, where no cases of CCD have been reported. That suggests that even if the virus is a key culprit, it doesn't destroy colonies by itself. Instead, it may act as a kind of last straw that triggers the collapse of hives stressed by other things that have set up bees for killer infections in the U.S.
Although a rare virus has been pinpointed as the culprit, the suspicion (as the story points out) is that it is merely the trigger. The main cause is still suspected to be something environmental. The best evidence still says that our lifestyles are harmful to the environment. The time has come to count the external costs of maintaining our disposable society. The honeybees -- and, by extension, our own existence -- depends on it.