For the last six years, mass disappearances of honeybees around the world have stumped scientists and governments alike. But during 2012, a flurry of new studies has shed light on the mystery and may help promote commercial solutions to the global epidemic.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) threatens to dramatically deplete the world's bee population, which underpins the global food chain. Dozens of crops, from asparagus to watermelon, rely on honeybee pollination to thrive. In the US alone, bees play a role in $14 billion worth of agricultural production each year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
With such high stakes, it's no wonder that governments have been pouring money into research aimed at solving the riddle. Yet until recently, there hasn't been a convincing solution on the market, perhaps because the underlying causes remained unclear.
That may be changing. Theories abound as to why entire communities of bees have been abandoning their queens and leaving their hives in winter, never to return. Deadly mites, parasites, poor nutrition and bee management stress have all been named as possible causes. This year, several studies have laid the blame squarely on certain pesticides, which some European countries have already banned because of fears that they may cause CCD.
Neonicotinoids are at the center of these studies. This relatively new type of pesticide has been suspected as a possible culprit in CCD since 2007, when a Pennsylvania beekeeper first speculated about the epidemic. Five years later, his hunch has been confirmed by French and British researchers, who published their separate findings in the journal Science, and by a Harvard University scientist writing in the Bulletin of Insectology.
These results are good news for BeesFree Inc., (BEES.OB) based in West Palm Beach, Florida, which has developed a solution to combat the side effects that neonicotinoids have on honeybees.
Bees that taste the company's therapeutic nectar also benefit from nutrients, antioxidants and additional anti-viral agents and compounds. The drugs are delivered by a specially designed system, with colors and odors that attracts the insects and a distributor that sprays the compound to maximize intake.
The company says extensive testing in Italy - where it has R&D labs in Rome - resulted in a 50% increase in the number of hives, while in nearby operations, the bee population shrank by more than 40% a year.
Just as the latest studies were being published, BeesFree received its first order in Argentina, which led to a long-term agreement with the National Institute of Agricultural Technology aimed at combating CCD throughout the country.
Recent orders in Slovakia and Italy marked its first steps toward establishing a foothold in Europe. And after raising $542,000 through the issuance of preferred stocks and warrants in October, BeesFree is gearing up to build its business on the continent.
As beekeepers struggle to cope with this increasing threat, BeesFree sees a huge business opportunity. It estimates the global market for its product to be worth between $2 billion and $3 billion a year, among some about 80 million commercial bee operations worldwide.
For investors, BeesFree offers a compelling pure play on this completely new market. BeesFree is a microcap stock, traded over the counter with a market capitalization of just $16.2 million as of December 13. Yet it also has a first-to-market advantage-and it has only just begun to sell its products. So if the business takes off, the return potential could be enormous for investors willing to shoulder the speculative risk.
However, the competition is formidable. BeesFree is a minnow compared with its main rival Monsanto Company (MON), the agro-chemical giant. In late 2011, Monsanto bought an Israeli company called Beelogics in an effort to get into the market for a CCD solution. Beelogics is developing a product called Remembee, which takes a different approach to defeating CCD, by blocking gene expression using an anti-viral agent.
With any viable product, Monsanto's sheer size and global reach would give it a clear advantage in penetrating markets and generating sales. Yet it will be tough for investors to tap its potential because Remembee is a tiny component in the corporate behemoth's lineup. Buying into a large-cap company may mitigate the risks of investing in a brand new market, but it's also likely to mute the potential rewards should the CCD remedy begin to pay off.
Investors should also consider that Monsanto will face an uphill battle with public relations. Some critics have suggested that Monsanto may have bought Beelogics to cover up its own complicity in the outbreak of CCD by selling the very pesticides that have been fingered in the recent studies.
This year's studies are unlikely to be the last word on the causes of CCD. There's still plenty of debate among scientists and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) isn't ready to declare a winner.
"While a number of potential causes have been championed by a variety of researchers and interest groups, none of them have stood up to detailed scrutiny," said Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, who heads up the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's CCD research effort. "Every time a claim is made of finding a "smoking gun," further investigation has not been able to make the leap from a correlation to cause-and-effect."
In addition, the bee colony plague seems to have moderated somewhat last winter. Average annual losses of about 33% a year since 2006 eased to 22%, which might reduce demand for CCD solutions. Still, the USDA says a one-year improvement is inconclusive, and it will take at least another year or two to determine whether CCD is really on the decline.
In the meantime, the quest to bring an effective antidote to market will continue unabated. As companies like BeesFree and Monsanto step up their marketing efforts, the buzz around the academic debate-and responses of early customers-will help determine who gets the upper hand in this embryonic market to save the bees.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.