With a mysterious disease or parasite ravaging beekeepers' hives in New Brunswick, honey producers in the region are in for a tough season.

Beekeeper Paul Vautour says 80 per cent of his 180 hives are full of dead bees.

Vautour, who is president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association,said the dead bees in his hives are only a small fraction of the bees he usually keeps.

"We think there might be something in the environment that they're getting into and getting disoriented," Vautour said. "Those hives were boiling last fall when I put them away, and now there's a tiny little cluster in them. A lot of the bees have absconded and not come back."

Vautour says half the beekeepers in the province report having the same problems he's experiencing. Beekeepers in the northeast United States and in Ontario have been reporting similar problems.

Beekeepers from at least 22 states have reported unusual colony deaths, and some commercial beekeepers have reported losing more than 50 per cent of their colonies.

Vautour said U.S. researchers are already working to get to the bottom of the problem, but no solution is in sight.

Mites may be culprit: professor

University of New Brunswick microbiologist David Boyle suggests mites may be a culprit and is developing ways to use fungus to fight the tiny, spider-like parasites.

"The thought is we can grow the fungi, and put it in the hives," Boyle said. If we get the right strain of fungus, it will kill the mites without any adverse effect on the bees."

Boyle is conducting tests in the lab to find a fungus that works, but he won't be able to offer beekeepers a solution to a mite problem this year.

"There are a lot of steps involved," Boyle said. "I would guess it would take two or three years if things went well."

Members of the beekeepers association will meet with New Brunswick agriculture officials later this week.

In the meantime, Vautour says he doesn't expect consumers to be much affected this year because a steady honey supply from Europe and Asia will help keep prices stable.