Taiwan is the latest to report the disappearance of millions of honey bees. The phenomenon was first noticed last year in the United States, where scientists are working feverishly to figure out what has happened to what is perhaps the most useful of insects. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Taiwan joins the United States, Canada, Brazil and Europe as places where the honey bee seems to be disappearing.

And that has a lot of people worried. Bees play an essential role in pollinating billions of dollars worth of food plants every year.

The mystery of the disappearing bees first gained widespread attention in the United States last October when beekeepers started releasing their insects near crops to pollinate plants.

But the beekeepers reported that their once-vibrant hives had been lost to what experts call "colony collapse disorder." The hives had been abandoned by worker bees that had left behind weak queens and immature insects.

Soon there was speculation that the honey bees had been lost to global warming or insecticide poisoning. But the expers' latest hypothesis is that the bees may have been affected by a fungus.

Virginia state apiarist Kenneth Tignor says the honey bees could have left the hive to look for new quarters because the old hive became undesirable. He says the phenomenon is known as absconding. If it occurs in the spring or summer when there's a good food supply, Tignor says the bees will survive.

But he says the bees are unlikely to survive if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did in the United States. "What we're thinking is happening is the bees are dying," he said.

The U.S. Congress held hearings last month to consider remedial measures, including ways to compensate beekeepers for their losses and to prevent the spread any harmful fungus or disease.