Honey bee pollinating flower (© Flickr Open-Getty Images)

The term "colony collapse disorder" might sound like something out of science fiction, but it's a growing problem with widespread economic consequences affecting one of the more beneficial insects to mankind: honeybees.

Whole colonies of honeybees have been dying off for years now, and no one seems exactly sure why. And if you think dead bees don't affect you, think again. As The New York Times notes, those bees are essential for pollinating much of America's fruit and vegetable crops.

"The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees," says The Times. "Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices."

As an example, the newspaper points to the nation's valuable almond industry -- valued at around $3.4 billion in 2011. Most of America's almonds are grown in California on about 800,000 acres. And to pollinate that acreage, farmers need at least two beehives per acre, or about two-thirds of all commercial hives in the U.S. The Times says the bee shortage has pushed the cost of renting hives up 20% from normal prices, to around $200 per hive.

Experts have been looking at a number of possible causes for the bee die-off, from ongoing drought conditions across most of the country to pesticide-resistant bee mites to viruses. Last year, researchers at Yale University found genetic evidence that decades of exposing domestic bees to the antibiotic oxytetracycline may have weakened the insects' ability to fight off disease.

"It seems likely this reflects a history of using oxytetracycline since the 1950s," one of the study's lead authors told Voice of America. "It’s not terribly surprising. It parallels findings in other domestic animals, like chickens and pigs."

But some agriculture industry observers are looking closely at a group of widely used, nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids as a possible culprit. Neonicotinoids are less toxic to mammals and became commercially available in the 1990s. Usage of the chemicals has reportedly soared over the past eight years, from large farms to backyard vegetable patches. And scientists are discovering neonicotinoids can build up in a bee's system and become toxic.

"If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference," Bret Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota and one of the nation's largest beekeepers, told The Times. "But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing."

In January, scientists with the EU's European Food Safety Authority said they had identified some risks posed to bees by neonicotinoids, "with particular regard to: their acute and chronic effects on bee colony survival and development."

Several European countries have banned some uses of neocnicotinod insecticides. But two major producers, Syngenta (SYENF) and Bayer Crop Science, part of Germany's Bayer (BAYZF), are disputing the EU's findings.

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