As you scan Steve Mayes' honey-making operation in Mackinaw, with its large industrial pot and plastic teddy bear containers ready to be filled, you wouldn't know his industry was in trouble.

As you scan Steve Mayes' honey-making operation in Mackinaw, with its large industrial pot and plastic teddy bear containers ready to be filled, you wouldn't know his industry was in trouble.

"Today we are in crisis with honeybees," said Mayes, who cites a host of problems that plague the bees. It includes pesticides, mites, genetic problems, bacterial diseases and viruses and other insects like small hive beetles and Australian bees.

But one problem stands out over all others, one that continues to mystify scientists around the world. So many honeybees have disappeared in recent years - literally left the hive without a trace - that researchers have coined a name for the phenomenon: Colony collapse disorder.

Agreeing with Mayes is Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois who has studied bees for 30 years and is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the honeybee.

"We are in crisis. Losses (among honeybees) for the past two years are in the 25 to 40 percent range. That's much higher than previous years," he said.

The decline of the honeybee threatens more than the production of honey, said Robinson.

"The world could survive without honey but when bees visit plants (to pollinate), that allows plants to do what they do," he said. "In agriculture, we're used to a simple relationship. If you don't have cows, you won't have milk. Without apple trees, you won't have apples. In the case of pollen gathering, no bees means no apples and a lot more."

Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "While there are native pollinators, honeybees are the most prolific and the easiest to manage for the large-scale pollination that U.S. agriculture requires," said a report by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

The USDA is doing research at four facilities round the country to find an answer to the disappearing honeybees, said Kim Kaplan, a spokeswoman from USDA offices in Beltsville, Md.

"It's hard to tell whether (the problem) is getting better or worse. Numbers (of bees) are extremely soft. We'll conduct another survey this spring," she said.

Losing bees is nothing new to beekeepers like Mayes, who waits out the winter while bees "cluster" in their hives. Bees form a winter cluster by swarming around the queen, he said. "If you check the hive during the winter, you can physically feel the heat coming off the bees," said Mayes.

Since most of the 400 hives Mayes has scattered across Tazewell County are in isolated locations, he won't get to check on all his bees until spring. "If I only lose 30 percent, that's a good winter," he said.

Last year was not a good winter as Mayes lost almost 80 percent of his bees. "I had to spend $12,000 to replace bees in the spring. When I complained to my in-laws about that, they just said those are the input costs in agriculture," he said.

But while Mayes and his wife Jill, who is equally skilled as a beekeeper, maintain a profitable business, supplying his Mackinaw Valley Apiaries honey to 32 area stores, the prognosis for his industry isn't sweet.

Some reports are downright chilling. "The honey industry in the United States and Canada is as good as dead," writes Rowan Jacobsen, whose book, "Fruitless Fall," paints a grim picture of the honeybee's future.

In his book, Jacobsen details the problems of large beekeepers who truck thousands of hives to large farms each year to satisfy frantic growers in need of the pollination services the bees provide.

The USDA said the number of managed honeybee colonies has dropped from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today while agricultural demand continues to increase.

The single largest user of honeybees is California's almond industry, which supplies over 80 percent of the world's almonds. "Early each year, (almond growers) look for 1.5 million hives to pollinate the blossoms," wrote Jabobsen in "Fruitless Fall."

"Without bees, all those almond trees are worthless," he said. "Had almond growers not suddenly had lots of money to pay beekeepers (for hive rentals) at exactly the time they did, the U.S. beekeeping industry would already be a corpse," said Jacobsen.

CCD - the phenomenon that describes the disappearance of vast numbers of bees around the globe - has given rise to numerous theories on the cause of the problem, from interference created by cell phone towers to UFOs.

"You wouldn't believe the e-mails I get," said the USDA's Kaplan. "I've had people attribute disappearing bees to the rapture, the ozone hole and because of genetically engineered plants, just to name a few."

The problem may be a combination of factors that puts too much stress on honeybees to do the amazing job they do, said Mayes.

"Bees are part of the system because man works them. We're all too happy to sterilize our fields (with chemicals) and say we don't have any problems but we do have problems," he said.

"I know chemical companies say that tests show that pesticides don't harm the bees but I'm just not sure. Pesticide is just one problem," said Mayes, who routinely uses pesticides to fend off mites - tiny creatures that feed on a bee's blood - that have been a big problem for almost two decades, virtually wiping out wild bees, he said.

"I got into beekeeping in 1997. Mites had been a problem for a number of years. At that time a lot of longtime beekeepers were dropping out of the business because they didn't want to spray anything in their hives," said Mayes, 60, a former technician at the Peoria Ag Lab.

One beekeeper in Gridley lost 1,500 hives when he failed to account for the mite problem, he said.

Now the small hive beetle has become a combatant in the war against the bees, said Mayes. "The beetles are usually found in more tropical locations but we're starting to see them in McLean County," he said.

"The beetle is one-third the size of a bee. It sniffs out honey and lays its eggs in the beehive. When those eggs hatch, the maggots eat everything and destroy the hive," said Mayes.

Beset by all these problems, the bee remains a marvel, said Robinson at the University of Illinois, the institution that took the lead in sequencing the honeybee genome.

"There's really nothing that compares with the bee dance language. It stands as one of the seven wonders of the animal behavior world," he said.

That language is a product of what Jacobsen calls "the hive mind."

"In a healthy colony, intelligence flashes between individual bees like electrical signals between neurons. Every bee is on task. The impression is not of thousands of individuals but of one fluid intelligence," he said.

While the mystery of disappearing bees remains unsolved, there are signs of hope, say researchers. "We know more today than we've ever known before about the diet of the bee," said USDA's Kaplan.

"Progress is being made," said Robinson, focusing on the root cause of CCD. "Information continues to implicate viruses. If it is a virus, why is it so potent? It appears that some bees handle viruses better than others. It's complicated."

Rona Sharp, a writer in Ipswich, England, operates an environmental Web site, www.greenfootsteps.com, that recently offered tips that might help the bees. "Farmers are encouraged to plant wildflower strips along field verges. Organic farming methods are generally a lot more bee-friendly," she said.

"Gardeners can plant plenty of nectar-giving flowers such as rosemary and foxgloves. The bees in my garden absolutely love the lavender and marjoram. Rosemary is also a favorite," said Sharp.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com.

Bee facts

Pollination: Agriculture depends on the honeybee for pollination. Honeybees account for 80 percent of all insect pollination. Without pollination, we would see a significant decrease in the yield of fruits and vegetables.

Pollen: Bees collect 66 pounds of pollen a year, per hive. Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilization and plant embryo formation.

Honey: Honey is used by bees for food all year round. There are many types, colors and flavors of honey, depending upon its nectar source. The bees make honey from the nectar they collect from flowering trees and plants.

Beeswax: Secreted from glands, beeswax is used by the honeybee to build honey comb. It is used by humans in drugs, cosmetics, artists' materials, furniture polish and candles.

Royal Jelly: The powerful, milky substance that turns an ordinary bee into a Queen Bee. It is made of digested pollen and honey or nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in a nursing bee's head. It commands premium prices rivaling imported caviar, and is used by some as a dietary supplement and fertility stimulant. It is loaded with all of the B vitamins.

Queen Bee: There is only one queen per hive. A queen bee can live three to five years. The queen mates only once with several male (drone) bees, and will remain fertile for life. She lays up to 2000 eggs a day. Fertilized eggs become female (worker bees) and unfertilized eggs become male (drone bees). When she dies or becomes unproductive, the other bees will "make" a new queen by selecting a young larva and feeding it a diet of "royal jelly".

Worker Bee: All worker bees are female, but they are not able to reproduce. Worker bees live four to nine months during the winter season, but only six weeks during the busy summer months (they literally work themselves to death). Nearly all bees in a hive are worker bees. A hive consists of 20,000 to 30,000 bees in the winter, and 60,000 to 80,000 bees in the summer.

Drone Bee: These male bees are kept on standby during the summer for mating with a virgin queen. Because the drone has a barbed sex organ, mating is followed by the death of the drone. There are only 300 to 3,000 drones in a hive. The drone does not have a stinger. Because they are of no use in the winter, drones are expelled from the hive in the autumn.

Source: The 2 Cs and a Bee Association, Pennsylvania