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Dropping like bees Agriculture Department needs to act on problem that has scientists buzzing

"The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey," said that self-confessed Bear of Very Little Brain. And, were honey really all that bees were good for, it would be bad enough that many of the bees in the United States are unexpectedly and, so far, inexplicably dying.

But silly old Winnie-the-Pooh didn't know the half of it. And that's why Sen. Hillary Clinton is among those raising the alarm at the new phenomenon known to scientists as "colony collapse disorder." That's the growing number of bee colonies that are suddenly depopulated of all but the queen and her hatchlings, with the cause unknown and the whereabouts of the missing and presumed dead worker bees a total mystery.

As bees flit from flower to flower gathering the raw materials of honey-making, they carry with them the pollen that is necessary for plants to reproduce. Not all plants need that help, but a great many of the plants we eat, or that are fed to the animals we eat, do. They include most fruits, including the orchards of New York State, berries and nuts, as well as the alfalfa and clover that are fed to livestock.

Industrialized agriculture has long outpaced the ability of the random wanderings of bees to support. So human-kept bee colonies are toted about the country from season to season. The value of their contribution has been estimated to top $14 billion a year.

These husbanded bee colonies are hardly a new development -- Sherlock Holmes was said to have devoted his retirement years to beekeeping -- so it is indeed a puzzle as to what is causing all these bees to drop like, well, flies. Theories range from the ever-increasing number of unnatural toxins pumped into the biosphere to some kind of weird reaction to the signals radiated by cell phones. It is even thought that a nicotine-based pesticide that has been used to protect bees from a tiny mite that had been infesting many hives has gone on to kill the bees, too.

Whatever the cause, Clinton is correct to push the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out what's happening to the bees. And with a buzz on.

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