Now, on a brand new front, Sheppard will soon look into an additional safeguard – all stemming from Olson’s unexpected discovery this winter.

His bees thrived.

"You wouldn’t believe what a difference a year made,” said Olson, speaking by cell phone from an almond orchard in California. His voice boomed of jubilance – in part because of the birth of a grandson back in Washington the night before, but also because his bees didn’t go AWOL this winter.

"They’re healthy and beautiful. I’ve never seen them look so good!” he said.

Exasperated by his steep yearly losses, Olson did some research and asked around. This time, he didn’t truck his 14,000 hives from Washington to California and overwinter them in holding fields until the February almond bloom.

Instead, he rented warehouse space in Yakima to store them. He equipped each room with air circulation and ventilation systems and set the thermostat at 40 degrees.

"Afterward, I just plain babysat, checking on them every day,” he said. As days stretched into weeks, "instead of dead bees, sick bees or none at all, they looked strong.”

So strong, in fact, that he recently loaded the bustling hives onto semi-trucks for the trip to central California where, come mid-February, his bees will be zipping from one almond tree to another, pollinating the white flowers.

Shelter from stressors

Did Olson’s climate-controlled warehouse protect his bees from CCD?

"Absolutely, I’m convinced of it,” he said. "I’ve compared notes with other commercial beekeepers who’ve indoored their bees with good results.”

One of them is Tom Hamilton, of Hamilton Honey Co. in Idaho and Montana, whose indoor-stored bees don’t get hit by CCD, he said.

"I’ve long suspected an environmental component,” Hamilton said. "By overwintering them indoors, the bees encounter fewer stressors, especially pesticides. Even if they’re not killing them outright, they leave the bees vulnerable,” he said.

Although this matches Sheppard’s assessment that sublethal pesticide levels contribute to colony collapse, merely identifying the culprits won’t make the deaths go away.

New research on indoor overwintering

This is why, next, Sheppard and his research team will examine ways to protect the would-be victims. With additional donations made by Olson and Hamilton, they’ll undertake a study never before done in this country: evaluating the overwintering of honey bees while controlling the temperature and atmospheric gases.

"Our study will be done in controlled atmosphere conditions,” said Sheppard. "The few studies done on indoor wintering didn’t examine this. Those bees were stored indoors but without monitoring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.”

Sheppard suspects that one of the reasons Olson’s bees fared so well indoors is because they avoided the aging process that typically occurs when they forage outdoors.

"Instead of expending energy to forage in California at a time when there was an absence of pollen and nectar available, the bees clustered quietly indoors with plenty of honey – a move that maximized their lifespan for the spring bloom,” Sheppard said. Additionally, being inside reduced their risk to pesticide exposure, he said.

Can honey bees fend off CCD by being overwintered indoors with atmospheric controls?  As one of television’s most successful sci-fi shows, "The X-Files,” used to say: "The truth is out there.”