Bee on flower
© John McKay, Times
Honey isn't the only thing we'd miss if bees completely disappeared.

"Bees are a profound part of the ecosystem, much more than we ever thought," said Rowan Jacobsen, whose chilling new book, The Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis (Bloomsbury), gives us a taste of a world without honey, not to mention other goodies bees make possible. The tall, lanky 40-year-old author talked with me at a new East Village restaurant fittingly called Apiary while promoting his book in New York.

Fruitless Fall details the recent rise of colony collapse disorder. Bees, around for the past 100 million years, have been mysteriously dying in droves -- about 30 billion worldwide last year alone.

"Bees are responsible for 35 per cent of our calories, but it's not just any 35 per cent," Jacobsen said. "It's the 35 per cent with the most antioxidants and vitamins -- all the fruits and vegetables. All these super foods that lower cholesterol and blood pressure go way down without bees."

We perused Apiary's menu to see what might not be there in the worst-case scenario.

"Squash soup," he intoned as if pronouncing a death sentence. "You're going to have to cross that off for sure. It's one of the crops completely pollinated by bees, along with other members of that family, pumpkins and cucumbers."

My hopes for greens were also dashed. "Lettuce will grow on its own without honey bees but it won't set seed unless it's pollinated." Orange was a featured ingredient in another appetizer. "It will self-pollinate when needed -- if you're not with the one you love, love the one you're with. But their yields are much higher with bees."

Entrées didn't fair much better.

"The cod with lentils and spinach," Jacobsen sighed, "well, you need seeds for spinach. For the Moroccan spiced chicken, the olives are fine, but apricots and mint are in trouble. Mushrooms couldn't care less about bees. We're going to have to get rid of the cider reduction on the grilled pork loin."

One ingredient Jacobsen was surprised not to find on the menu was almonds -- but maybe there's a sinister reason for that.

"They're the first crop where we might see significant changes," he said. "Last year there were not enough bees to pollinate the almond crop, which is 750,000 acres in California." Expect prices to rise next year, Jacobsen said.

Colony collapse disorder first appeared in the fall of 2006, when a Florida beekeeper noticed that his hives were collapsing at an alarming rate, and over that winter, about a third of his bees died. Debate over the cause came to focus on a few factors, though it hasn't yet fingered a single culprit.

Most beekeepers became convinced the problem was a new class of pesticides called "neonicontinoids."

When honeybees take nectar, they ingest low levels of these neuro-active agents that destroy the nervous and immune systems of termites and other insects. The pesticide apparently hobbles a bee's ability to perform the bee waggle dance, which communicates the location of food sources.

Jacobsen said that Bayer AG makes the main neonicontinoids. The Leverkusen, Germany-based company has said that its own research indicates that honey bees are exposed to only negligible amounts.

In addition, "France banned the neonicotinoids in 2001, and their bees are still struggling," Jacobsen said.

Others noted that bee corpses killed by CCD are riddled with 14 different kinds of viruses. Some scientists pointed to a virus identified in Israel but inconsistent data ruled it out as the sole serial killer.

High fructose corn syrup, which is fed in great quantities to commercial bees, has been raised as a contributing factor. "It's like us drinking just Sprite for a month and it leads to shorter life spans and more disease," Jacobsen said.

Rumours about cellphones disrupting apian navigation patterns have no real scientific basis; and global warming has a possible role, but only affecting some bee food sources.

"The current theory is that it's a mix of all these things," said Jacobsen. Moving on to dessert, we skipped over the artisanal honey, but the strawberry crêpes and ice cream looked inviting.

"Completely out," barked Jacobsen. What about the goat- cheese cake with blueberry compote? "What are those goats eating? If they're free-range and eating crops, they rely on bees. Cross it out."

We ordered these sweets anyway before their absence becomes a reality. Einstein himself is reputed to have warned that if bees go, humans have only four years left.