These days, Ted Dennard sells more honey than his 25 honeybee colonies can produce. Since being featured in O, The Oprah Magazine two years ago, Dennard has had to borrow bees from nearby beekeepers to keep up with demand.
The Savannah Bee Company, which he founded in 2002 and today employs 16 workers in a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, is expecting to reach $2 million in sales this year.
There's only one hitch. The industry's hardest workers -- the bees -- are disappearing.
Since last November, U.S. beekeepers have lost roughly a quarter of their colonies to an as yet unexplained disorder that's killing off honeybees in 27 states, as well as in Brazil, Canada, and across Europe.
Researchers believe the cause of the die-offs, which has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, could either be a parasite, bacteria, a virus, pesticides, or even cell phones.
"This could put me out of business if it goes on much longer," Dennard said, adding that so far, none of his colonies have been affected. "It's really going to be bad, bad news for everybody if something isn't done."
The first signs of trouble appeared in the last three months of 2006.
"We began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honeybee colonies dying in the eastern United States," Maryann Frazier, a researcher at Penn State's College of Agriculture Sciences, said in a media release in January that first brought the crisis to public attention.
"Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses," Frazier said.
According to the most recent Census by the Department of Agriculture, there were roughly 17,000 beekeeping operations in the United States with 2.4 million bee colonies in 2002. About a third were in California and Florida, while others were located in North and South Dakota, Texas, Montana, Minnesota, Idaho, Michigan, and Washington, among other states.
Most are larger agri-businesses that manage up to 5,000 bee colonies at a time, though many smaller operations still exist, Dennard said.
Beyond producing honey, bees are also the main pollinators of many domestic crops, from a wide variety of citrus fruits, to soybeans, avocados, and cucumbers.
As such, honeybees are estimated to contribute as much as $15 billion a year to the U.S. food supply, a recent congressional study found.
Whatever is causing the bee fatalities, the impact is quick and deadly, researchers have found.
"The bee colony proceeds rapidly from a strong colony with many individuals to a colony with few or no surviving bees," Diana Cox-Foster, an entomology researcher at Pennsylvania State University, told lawmakers at a congressional hearing in March.
While the queen and few younger bees are found in the hive with adequate food, the adult bees are simply gone, Cox-Foster said. "No dead adult bees are found in the colony or outside in proximity to the colony."
The national Honey Board has committed more than $50,000 in emergency funding to support ongoing research efforts, while state beekeeper associations are working with their members to collect additional funding.
"It's such a serious problem, I know they're going to solve it," Dennard said. "They just have to."