Bees are in trouble, and in Washington, that could mean agriculture is, too.

Last year, many Washington beekeepers were relieved that they avoided a mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that silenced hives all over the country. But this year, some beekeepers are reporting a devastating new pathogen - with no reliable cure - is killing their bees in droves.

Some beekeepers are helping to pay for a crash research program at Washington State University to figure out what is going on.

"It's a major disaster in Western Washington. We are into a huge emergency situation," said Yakima beekeeper Eric Olson, who runs the state's largest commercial pollination business.

©Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Yakima beekeeper Eric Olson holds a hive loaded with bees in Long Beach, Pacific County. A new pathogen is devastating the hives of some Washington beekeepers.

While his hives in Central and Eastern Washington have survived, Olson said he has lost 80 percent of his Western Washington hives - more than 4,000 in all - to the new pathogen. Other commercial pollinators with bees in Western Washington were just as hard hit. "I'm scared, and I don't mind saying so," Olson said.

For the researchers at WSU, "it's a huge concern," said Kim Patten, a WSU Extension specialist in Long Beach, Pacific County.

"We are just sort of at that tipping point," he said. "It wouldn't take much for the supply and demand for [bee] colonies to wreak havoc with agriculture in the Northwest."

Eight of Washington's 10 most valuable crops per acre in 2006 - including apples, the state's top crop, worth $1.4 billion - depend on bees for pollination.

In all, at least $1.8 billion worth of crops in Washington are nothing without bees.

Nationally, a third of the food supply depends on bees for pollination, from melons to cranberries to carrot seed, according to the National Research Council. Native pollinators, from wasps to bumblebees, are not present in the numbers needed for industrial agriculture - and those pollinators are also in decline.

Most troubling is the mystery that continues to surround the Colony Collapse Disorder.

"No one really has their pulse on that to say, 'Here is the problem and here is what we have to do about it,' " Patten said.

Beekeepers began reporting mysterious and unusually high losses in 2006.

Colony Collapse Disorder is only one of the latest problems to plague bees, from bloodsucking mites to diseases and pesticide kills, and an ever-decreasing supply of nectar as highway medians are mowed, fields are paved and town ordinances banish bee hives.

Over the past 60 years, the number of bee colonies nationally has fallen from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2005, according to the National Research Council. And Washington beekeepers are starting to be stung by losses, too.

A sample of Olson's bees turned up a new pathogen, nosema ceranae, that causes a more aggressive and more persistent disease. The fungus attacks the bee's gut, making it impossible to process food. The bees finally starve to death.

©Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Eric Olson, tending to one of his hives, says the new pathogen that is killing bees has him "scared, and I don't mind saying so."

"People are losing bees right and left, and this new nosema is the prime suspect. All indications are that this is a tremendous problem," said Walter Sheppard, entomologist at Washington State University.

"We are all pretty worried ... this is a new thing for us and we don't know what will happen," said Robert Breshears in Wapato, another commercial beekeeper. "I imagine I've got it too, and probably everybody does."

Breshears said he lost about 35 percent of his colonies this winter and he has no idea what to expect next year.

"It's definitely scary," he said. "You look at them one week, and go back the next week and the box is empty, and it's happened to a lot of people."

Jerry Tate, president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association, pegs overall statewide losses at 35 to 50 percent. But he confirmed losses in Western Washington among commercial pollinators were 80 percent and higher.

"In the old days, if we lost five to 10 percent, we were whining and crying," he said. "Now, with 30 percent losses, we think we've had a good year."