Read The Beekeeper's Lament Online

Authors: Hannah Nordhaus

The Beekeeper's Lament

The Beekeeper’s Lament

HOW ONE MAN
AND HALF A BILLION
HONEY BEES
HELP FEED AMERICA

Hannah Nordhaus

Dedication

To Jeanele, who gave me words

Epigraph

What god was it, O Muses, who devised

An art like this? Where was it that such strange

New knowledge came from and was learned by men?

—“FOURTH GEORGIC,”
THE GEORGICS OF VIRGIL

Chapter One
Fast Cars and Big Trucks

J
OHN
M
ILLER ISN’T FOND OF DEATH.
H
E TAKES IT PERSONALLY
. A few years ago he even bought a Corvette, as if that could stave it off. It was a red C-5, number 277 produced that year, brand-new. He purchased it just before he turned forty-six, as the days lengthened to summer’s zenith. Then he promptly fled California. East of Reno the highway emptied, and he inched the speedometer faster—90, 100, 120, 170. He passed a souped-up Cadillac STS as if it were a dawdling tractor; the driver didn’t even have time to turn his head and gawk. Miller likes numbers, so he clocked himself and did some silent math. Even going 90, the sucker in the STS had to wait forty-five seconds for a mile to pass. Miller? Twenty-two and a half seconds per mile. And just like that, he was nine hundred miles away, in Hudson, Wyoming. He stopped there for a meal at Svilar’s restaurant with his old friend Larry Krause.

John Miller is a migratory beekeeper, and so is Larry Krause. They travel the country with thousands of hives, chasing blooms and making honey. Miller and Krause have been friends for a very long time, as is often the case with beekeepers. They are a dying breed, figuratively speaking. There are fewer and fewer of them, and they tend to a breed—
Apis mellifera
, the European honey bee—that is literally dying. Yet they persist, against all logic and pecuniary sense, because beekeepers—who have, after all, chosen careers involving stinging insects—are not terribly rational people. They are loyal people, however. Miller loves Larry Krause. He is the kind of guy, Miller says, that they don’t make anymore: kind, gentlemanly, solid, unassuming—“a guy you would introduce to your mother.” Krause and Miller help out with each other’s bees and eat nearly every meal together whenever they attend the same beekeeping conference.

Once a year, as Miller drives from California via Wyoming to meet his bees in North Dakota, he and Krause go to Svilar’s for a good steak. Then they head down the street to a bar “littered,” Miller says with good-humored disdain, “with signed, framed pictures of dead liberals”—Roosevelt, Kennedy, even Truman. They end the night at Krause’s house, where they feed the leftover steak to the dog and Miller crashes out in the guest bed. The next day, he continues on to North Dakota. Beekeepers, like bees, observe predictable rhythms, and the trip on the cusp of Miller’s forty-sixth birthday was little different: steak, bar, doggy-bag, bed. Except this time, the car was faster. In the morning, he hopped back in the Corvette, and by nightfall he was in North Dakota. Another thousand miles, another day saved by the speedy sports car, one less calendar square crossed off on the march to death.

John Miller would probably agree if I said that the Corvette wasn’t simply a way to go fast, or to intimidate other beekeepers, or to impress women. Rather, it was a symbol—a crude effort, as purchases made during midlife crises often are, but a symbol nonetheless: of a life unfettered, an existence unencumbered by bees and hives, by constant death, by protective suits and smokers and pasture and comb and feeders and hive tools, by semis and pallets and forklifts and other utilitarian vehicles. The Corvette was not utilitarian in the least, although it handled much more easily than a semi.

Semis are tippy and carry a lot of things. Sometimes they carry supplies, like corn syrup to feed bees during fallow times, and forklifts and pallets to lift them, and ropes and netting to tie them down, and a case of honey “for goodwill at all times,” Miller says. Sometimes they carry bees loaded four hives high, which is too much for a flatbed but is stable enough on a drop-deck trailer. Most of the time. In 2004, which was the first of a series of bad years for John Miller, his brother Lane was driving a truck full of bees on Route 287 near Bear Trap Canyon west of Bozeman, Montana, when he misjudged a curve, sloshed side to side, and overturned—512 beehives, 60,000 bees per hive, 30.7 million bees smeared across the pavement. Lane’s elbow was scraped to the bone and he had to kick out the windshield to escape. He was lucky, though, because some passing drivers helped him out before the bees were fully aware of what had happened. He walked away with the injured arm and only twenty stings. Soon the bees emerged from their hives and coated the outside of the truck and its honey-slicked cargo so thickly that you couldn’t see the wreckage under all the layers of distressed insects falling to the ground in big black gobs. It would be fourteen hours before a squad of emergency beekeepers could capture them, the road crew and firefighters could clear the wreck, the state transportation department could clean up the last pools of honey, and the road could reopen. Traffic returned to normal, but the lives lost that day were beyond comprehension.

Miller likes to think he’s equipped to handle death. If he weren’t a beekeeper, he says, he’d be a mortician, with a “black suit and a synthetic smile.” He knows how to deal with human mortality. When a neighbor dies, he is often moved to write eloquent if overwrought tributes. When a bee colony dies, though, he lacks the tools to describe his feelings. The loss is so profound. Many people believe that a beehive exists to support its queen—that social insects like bees are motivated by blind, cult-like devotion to a charismatic leader. But the queen also serves the hive, chasing some blind imperative to lay egg after egg, thousands a day, until the end of her productive life, at which point she is set upon and stung or ripped to death. The worker bees forage for supplies to keep the queen alive, but their first job is to care for the young. So really, they are tending to the future.

A typical beehive is a rectangular wooden box, usually painted white. The top of the box comes off, and that is the way beekeepers gain access to their bees, though they usually need a hive tool, a ten-inch, wedge-like steel implement that looks like a caveman’s crowbar, to disengage the flat wooden top from all the gunk that has accumulated underneath. Within the body of the hive—also called the brood chamber—lie ten top bars, wooden strips that rest across the rimmed edges of the box and hold the frames, which are rectangular planes of wax comb that hang like folders in a file cabinet. Each frame is filled with hundreds of wax cells—small interconnected hexagons in which queens can lay eggs and worker bees can store honey and pollen. Because the frames aren’t attached to each other or to the hive, the beekeeper can easily remove them one by one as a file clerk would remove a hanging folder, pulling the frames straight up and out of the hive to examine the bees or harvest honey. When a colony is healthy, the frames are teeming with thousands of bees, crawling and hatching and eating and working. The workers—the female bees who do all the cleaning, feeding, gathering, storing, and guarding—clamber over and under each other with purposeful direction; the paunchy drones—larger male bees whose sole task is to be available to impregnate a queen—wander around looking for handouts. Amid all this chaos, the queen sits like a rock star in a mosh pit, laying eggs, encircled by fawning workers who tend to her every need.

That’s what a healthy colony looks like. But when a colony collapses—when the population dwindles, when the incubating larvae get too cold, when the workers expire in a huddled, fluttering mass inside the hive or crawl out the entrances to die away from home, and when the queen finally dies, too—then it is an entirely different scene: empty brood cells, scattered disheartened survivors, plundering robber bees and mice and wax moths, filth and rot and ruin and invasion and death creeping in, like a neighborhood abandoned to the junkies. And when that happens, the real tragedy is not simply the loss of 35,000 or 60,000 or even 80,000 insignificant and perhaps soulless individuals, but of the future—the colony’s and Miller’s. That sort of loss is harder to comprehend. It leaves Miller wordless or, more accurately, overflowing with words he is not supposed to use. The death of a hive is both mind-numbingly ordinary and mind-blowingly sad. How do you describe that sort of bereavement? It is not so easy.

P
REMATURE DEATH
IS NEVER PART OF A BEEKEEPER’S PLAN
. Nonetheless, it is a way of life for him, because the best-laid plans are more like faint suggestions when your livelihood depends on the well-being of insects. We know this now. In the last half decade, a third of the national bee herd—about a million colonies—has died each year, often under mysterious circumstances. Miller is accustomed to losing bees on a large scale. “The insect kingdom enjoys little cell repair,” he says. “Humans relate poorly to this truth.” If a bee is sick, she doesn’t get better. If she breaks a leg, it doesn’t heal. If she ruptures her exoskeletal protection, she dries out and dies. If her wings are too worn to fly, she dies. Even when things are going well, a hive can lose a thousand bees a day as a matter of course. So each year, as wings and bodies wear out and one generation replaces the next, Miller oversees the deaths of billions of bees.

But the extent of these recent losses has defied even his insect-borne realism. It began, for him, in February 2005, soon after his bees awakened from a short winter dormancy to commence pollination season. He had trucked his fourteen thousand beehives from their winter quarters in the potato cellars of Idaho and unloaded them at his farm in Newcastle, California, as he does every winter. He’d left them alone for a few days while they dropped three months’ worth of “yellow rain”—little mustard-colored spatters of bee feces that drizzle onto beekeeping suits and baseball caps and windshields and car finishes and take three runs through a car wash to remove. Then he’d delivered the bees to holding yards around Newcastle, and from there to the almond orchards in California’s Central Valley, where he’d loaded their feeders with corn syrup and waited for the trees to blossom. They did, as they do every winter, right around Valentine’s Day. But then a horrible thing happened: his bees did not rise to the occasion.

February is the moment commercial beekeepers wait for all winter, when 740,000 acres of almonds flower simultaneously in the Central Valley. Almond pollen is too heavy for the wind to transport, so the trees depend instead on such pollinators as bumblebees, ground- and twig-nesting bees, beetles, bats, and especially honey bees to introduce pollen to stigma, male to female, to create nuts. Three quarters of a million acres of blooming trees make a lot of flowers, too many for any ordinary local pollinator to visit, much less for the wild insects and birds that once lived full-time in the Central Valley but have been driven to near extinction by pesticides and habitat loss. Instead, almond farmers rely on beekeepers like John Miller, who descend with billions of hardworking bees to accomplish the onerous but glorious task of turning almond blossoms into nuts and thence into money. Most commercial beekeepers spend the whole year keeping their bees alive and healthy for this three-week pollination extravaganza. Miller does, anyhow. Farmers will pay up to two hundred dollars for a hive of bees to visit their blossoms, and with honey prices depressed, that’s the way he counts on turning a profit. So February was the time when his bees were expected to invigorate not only the almonds, but also his bank accounts. His hives should have been singing with activity, plump brown bees working doggedly to carry pollen from blossom to blossom. Instead they emerged sluggish and wandered in drunken circles at the base of the hives, wingless, desiccated, blasé.

At the time, Miller had set himself the modest goal of “total global domination” of the beekeeping industry. His family’s business was among the top twenty operations in America, and he was well on his way to meeting a five-year plan of expanding his hive count by 50 percent, to fifteen thousand. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. In a matter of weeks, Miller lost four thousand hives—somewhere around 150 million bees, about 40 percent of his operation. He wasn’t the only one. Some of his colleagues lost more than 60 percent of their hives. It didn’t seem to matter whose bees they were, how they’d been nurtured, or where they came from: “the population just cratered.” There was nothing for a beekeeper to do but throw up his hands, take out another loan, and start again. It was, Miller says, a “profound collapse.”

Still, nobody outside the bee world really seemed to notice the frightening decline in the nation’s herd until late 2006, when a Pennsylvania beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg lost more than two thirds of his bees. One day in November 2006—November 12, to be specific—Hackenberg, a gangly, dark-haired man with a weathered face and a pronouncedly beaky proboscis, went to move 400 hives he had left on a gravel lot south of Tampa, Florida, and found 360 of them oddly empty. Full of honey, yes, and wax and honeycomb and brood—bees in various stages of development from egg to nearly imperceptible worm to white bee-like mass to baby bee. All that was left in most of them was a lonely, unattended queen and a clutch of attendants roaming the empty hives—just a pocketful, a cup of bees, not the teeming garbage-bin-sized load he expected. There were hardly any adult bees to be found. Nor could Hackenberg detect any sign of the opportunists who might under normal circumstances be expected to raid the honey stores of collapsed colonies: no robber bees, no wax moths, no hive beetles. There weren’t even any dead bees at the entrance to the hives. The entire adult population of the colony had simply flown out en masse and vanished.

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