It's an unsolved mystery that has entomologists, horticulturalists and beekeepers buzzing.

Honeybees are, or were, dropping like flies, according to Marla Spivak, associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Entomology in St. Paul.

"There is something mysterious going on, but I don't know what it is," said Tim Kuebelbeck, a 52-year-old hobby beekeeper from Avon.

Scientists have dubbed the fatal phenomenon colony collapse disorder, or CCD, and it can decimate a worker bee population in a matter of weeks for unlucky beekeepers.

Spivak is the bees' knees when it comes to honeybees, but she declined to comment except to say whatever it was that was causing bees to die has seemingly come and gone.

Minnesota was one of the top five honey-producing states in 2005, with production value at $7.4 million, according to the National Honey Board.

"While all of Minnesota wasn't affected, we were certainly concerned," said Carl Hoffman, a Stearns and Benton counties horticulturist.

More than honey

Honeybees are responsible for the pollination of 90 percent of flowering crops, including strawberries and blueberries, so the impact of a honey bee decline would be felt far and wide.

"One of the main reasons bees die is that they are infected with tracheal mites who infest the breathing tubes of the bees and cause the bees to die by piercing the trachea," Hoffman said.

"But from all the reports that I've gotten, the pollination has been pretty good in apples, so it won't affect the expected apple production ? at least not with the home orchards I've talked to."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a third of what we consume comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of that.

The almond crop is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination, and California is responsible for more than half of the world's production of almonds.

"At this time, there is no apparent decrease in pollination in fruit crops such as apples, plums or tree fruits," said Hoffman, who works for University of Minnesota Extension.

Apples, asparagus, avocados, berries, broccoli, cherries, kiwi, melons, peaches and soybeans are among the produce we have a busy bee to thank for.

"We encourage people not to use chemicals deadly to bees at crucial times, like when the fruit trees are in blossom," Hoffman said.

And the production of most beef and dairy products consumed in the United States is dependent on alfalfa and clover, which bees play a part in pollinating.

Bee business

Honey production last year in Minnesota from producers with five or more colonies was up 13 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, nationwide honey production declined from 2005 by 11 percent to 155 million pounds, according to the department's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"We just don't have as many beekeepers anymore because of the bee health problems and just because it's harder to make a profit from it," Hoffman said.

The Agriculture Department estimates there are 139,600 to 212,000 beekeepers nationwide.

Most are hobbyists with fewer than 25 hives, and about 4 percent are part-timers who keep more than 25 but less than 300 hives.

Together, hobbyists and part-timers account for about 50 percent of bee colonies and about 40 percent of honey produced, according to the National Honey Board.

Minnesota producers received an average of $0.89 per pound for honey sold last year, resulting in an estimated value of production of $8.9 million.

The U.S. value of production last year is estimated at $161.3 million, with an average price of $1.04 per pound.

Sticky situation

How much of a problem the honey bee killer caused depends on whom you ask, but for Conrad Legatt of Brockway Township, it almost wiped him out.

"I had a lot of losses last year, almost 90 percent, but I've talked to other people who have had some losses greater than mine and some not as great," Legatt said.

The 57-year-old hobby beekeeper sells honey from his home north of St. Joseph. It is produced from the 40 colonies of honeybees he keeps.

"The way they described it is like all the bees kind of disappearing one day, leaving an empty box, but I haven't seen it," said Kuebelbeck, who has four colonies of honeybees.

"What I've heard is it is a commercial beekeeper problem. We, hobby beekeepers, aren't having that problem."

Legatt bought 30 packages this year to replace the honeybees he lost and to restart his colonies. Each package contains 3 pounds of bees and a queen.

"I'm not sure what the deaths are related to it ... but nobody really knows if the pollen from these genetically altered plants we have now are harmful to bees or not," he said.

Those who have reported the heaviest losses associated with CCD are large commercial migratory beekeepers, some of whom have lost 50 percent to 90 percent of their colonies.

Surviving colonies are often so weak that they cannot pollinate or produce honey, according to the mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium.

"There's definitely a big difference in the concern level of a hobby beekeeper and a commercial beekeeper," Kuebelbeck said.

Commercial beekeepers are those with 300 or more colonies.

There are about 1,600 commercial beekeeping operations in the United States that produce about 60 percent of the nation's honey.

"A commercial beekeeper can lose everything, but hobby beekeepers don't have that much too lose. We can replace a couple of colonies, no problem," Kuebelbeck said.

Honeybee trivia

- Honey bees must tap 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey.

- The bees in one hive fly more than 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey.

- A honey bee flies about 15 mph.

- An average worker honey bee makes 1/12 teaspoon of honey in a lifetime.

- Each person in the United States consumes, on average, about 1.31 pounds of honey per year.

- There are an estimated 211,600 beekeepers in the United States.
Utah is known as the beehive state. Source: National Honey Board