The Silence of the Bees

The perilous existence of a migratory beekeeper amid a great bee die-off

  • Scanning electron microscope image of a bee loaded with pollen

    Darwin Dale/Photo Researchers Inc.
  • An almond orchard in Modesto, California, where John Miller moves bee hives every winter just before the bloom

    Singeli Agnew
  • Beekeeper John Miller readies his hives for the season

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • Alternating varieties of almond trees, with different bloom times, in Modesto

    Singeli Agnew
  • Varroa mites, tiny ticklike creatures, have infested beehives around the world (scattered on page, approximately 40 times actual size)

    USDA
  • John Miller’s annual beekeeping route stretches from California to North Dakota. Inset: 24 states have reported colony collapse disorder in at least some beehives

    Diane Sylvain
  • Bees from one of Miller’s hives

    Singeli Agnew
  • Bees fill the air in Gackle, North Dakota, where John Miller takes his bees each year to make honey in fields of clover and alfalfa

    Hannah Nordhaus
 

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Even before 2005, the keeping of bees could be likened to a continuous natural disaster: Infections rage, queens die, drought withers flowering plants, equipment rots, vandals and bears and skunks raid. Miller's banker once told him that a beekeeper should be prepared to fail two out of every seven years. "Why don't I get out?" Miller asked. "I love bees. They work hard; they're well behaved; they're selfless; they're generous." His apian affections run deep, from the bee-striped rug in the entryway of his home to his Salt Lake Stingers baseball cap to the yellow-and-black-striped German felt-tip pens that he encountered in an office supply store. When they were discontinued because of their propensity to leak, he bought out what remaining stock he could find. He carries them with him everywhere he goes, and you will frequently see him with an ink stain on his fingers and shirts. The love of the bee is an impractical passion.

The life of a migratory beekeeper is even more fraught with uncertainty. First, there is the issue of pasture, especially in more urbanized southern climes. "One of the toughest parts is obtaining sites to put bees on people's property," California beekeeper Orin Johnson told me. Miller's winter digs lie about a half-hour northeast of Sacramento, and as the strip malls, megamalls, minimalls and subdivisions encroach, it is harder to find a spot that is accessible and mud-free, and that provides sufficient nectar and pollen for the bees to survive until pollination season begins in February. He solves this problem by storing his hives in cool, dark potato cellars in Idaho from November to late January.

Then there's transportation. Moving the hives from Idaho to California in January, from California to the Washington apple orchards in March, to North Dakota in May and then to Idaho in November requires hiring and coordinating workers, forklifts, tankers of syrup to feed the bees during fallow times, and 30 flatbed semi-trucks. Nor does the hassle end once the trucks are on the road. In 2004 and again in 2005, Miller crashed bee-laden semis and had to peel equipment and smeared bees off the road for days. Even worse was the tanker of corn syrup that flipped on Interstate 80 north of Stockton, rendering the road a lubricated bowling alley. "I was not very popular with the California Highway Patrol," said Miller.

People are also a problem. There's the annual "trauma and drama" of finding employees who don't mind working in a maelstrom of stinging insects and are willing to leave their families for months at a time. Then there are the disagreeable beekeepers who dilute their honey with water or syrup or don't take good care of their bees; unsavory almond ranchers who play beekeepers off each other for lower pollination fees; thieves who pilfer hives; neighbors who complain. Besides objectionable humans, beekeepers must also contend with invasive insects, parasites and diseases; Africanized bees, which invade domestic hives, interbreed with European honeybees and create more aggressive, less diligent offspring; hive beetles that eat their way through a colony's larvae, pollen and honey, defecating every inch of the way and leaving a foul, gelatinous goo in their wake; fire ants that hitch rides on traveling hives and wreak havoc on crops; and microscopic tracheal mites that set up shop in a honeybee's feeding tube and shorten its lifespan.

The beekeeper's biggest enemy in recent years, however, has been a miniature, blood-red arachnid called the varroa mite. A remarkably adaptive, ticklike creature, the mite burrows into unborn brood and adults alike, feeding, as a tick does, on the bee's body fluids. It is, said Miller, a "sinister predation" that slowly saps the strength and vigor from a hive, either killing the brood outright or causing deformities that weaken adult bees and make them more susceptible to viruses. And this mite is — besides labor, pasture, honey prices, pollination prices, bacteria, fungi, unpleasant neighbors and other invading insects — what beekeepers think most about these days. "This is going to be the challenge of my career, there is no question about that. My grandfather never heard of it; my dad was barely aware of it; it occupies much of my problem-solving time. This varroa mite," said Miller, "swaggers like a colossus across beekeeping in North America."

The parasite, which is endemic to Asia, first arrived on U.S. shores in 1987, most likely smuggled in some eager apiarist's luggage. (Bee importation has been illegal in this country since 1922.) It caused negligible damage in Europe, where it first appeared in 1908, because the beekeeping industry is smaller and far less mobile. In the U.S., however, the mite jumped from hive to hive with alarming rapidity. "In the U.S., beekeepers are a bunch of mechanized gypsies, moving from crop to crop all through the year chasing pollination fees and honey flows," said Frank Eischen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist tasked with searching for new medicines to keep the invaders at bay. "Because of all this unnatural movement, some colonies get stressed, and they may be more susceptible."

During the first wave of infestation, the varroa killed nearly every feral colony on the continent. Well-kept colonies like Miller's, however, escaped major damage, because application of a common miticide kept the bug in check. Over the course of the next decade, though, the mites developed resistance to that treatment. They acquired immunity to a second compound after only three or four years. And in the winter of 2005, beekeepers realized, too late, that the current medicines were no longer working. No operation was untouched: Miller, who lost 40 percent of his bees, was considered lucky; some of his colleagues lost more than 60 percent of their hives. "We hauled semi-loads of dead bees and equipment from the orchards," Miller recalled. "In the old days we were shouting and spitting and swearing if we had an 8 percent dud rate. Now people would be happy with that."