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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Nowhere has the bee shortage been felt more acutely than in the Central Valley of California. The area is the most productive agricultural region in the nation — on Earth, in fact — but there is little rural romance here. The valley smells like a brew of fertilizer, chemicals and manure, and it hosts an eternal ebb and flow of mostly Hispanic migrant workers. Venture along Crows Landing Road, Modesto's gritty main agricultural strip, and find taco stands, chicken farms, "El Tio Auto Sales," John Deere dealerships, flea markets ("you can buy anything you want," said Miller, "a wet umbrella, a dry umbrella"), and acres and acres of almond trees.

Almonds are planted in an orderly diamond grid, each tree leaning ever-so-slightly to the northwest, whence come the most damaging winds. The sandy loam and Mediterranean climate of Stanislaus County are perfect for the mass cultivation of almonds, which, like the honeybees that allow them to propagate, are imported from Europe. "When God was thinking about almonds, this was the dirt he made," said Miller. The nuts grow nowhere else on earth in such prodigious numbers; California supplies 80 percent of the world's almonds, which have become obscenely profitable in recent years, the result of recent almond-affirming health studies, a European almond craze and a strong Euro. Almond ranchers break even if the nuts sell for more than $1 per pound wholesale. In 2005, they sold for three times that price, grossing California almond growers somewhere around $3 billion.

As prices have risen, more and more farmers in the area have plowed over their cotton and grapes, and almond harvests have grown from 236 million pounds 20 years ago to over a billion today. When I traveled with Miller to Modesto the year after the varroa swaggered across California, we drove to a high point in the middle of an almond ranch. From there, we could see nothing but mile after monocropped mile of pale pink petals extending from the western horizon to the eastern mountains. On the back roads near Modesto, it is easy to spot an almond rancher's home amid the otherwise pedestrian rural structures; the almond growers have trophy stuccos, driveways invariably lined with palm trees. Miller likes to draw a graph of the rise of "cabins owned by almond guys" at Lake Tahoe from 1960 to the present — a soaring diagonal, approaching infinity. Meanwhile, said Miller, "bee guys don't even have timeshares at Tahoe."

As with everything in agriculture, of course, such almond-fueled prosperity will probably be fleeting. The Modesto-based California Almond Board expects a 50 percent increase in the supply of almonds in the next five years, which should depress future prices and place even more demands on the failing bees. Although there were sufficient hives for almond pollination this year, "about 70 percent of the transportable colonies in the U.S. are coming into the almonds right now, and we're going to have about a 25 percent increase in bearing acreage in the next four to five years," said Chico almond farmer Dan Cummings. "So do the math. We're going to have a problem."

So what is bad for the bee guy is bad for the almond guy. But the reverse is also true. In the last four years, the price for a pound of honey has fallen below what it costs to produce it — a victim, like many homegrown industries, of cheaper Chinese competitors with names like "Wuhan Bee Healthy Co." It is the almond, therefore, that keeps bee guys afloat. To pollinate the ever-growing numbers of trees, beekeepers have transported 1.4 million hives into the almond orchards this winter. Like most migratory beekeepers (there are fewer than 1,000 of them in the country), Miller takes every single one of his 10,000 hives to California for the almond bloom, generating most of his annual income in the three weeks that the trees are in flower. As bees have dwindled and almond acreage has soared, pollination fees have risen from $30 per hive in the late 1990s to around $140 this winter.

And so, too, has a black market in bees, as poachers, mostly renegade beekeepers, steal hives from one orchard and rent them to desperate almond ranchers down the road. Each almond season, around 1 percent of Miller's hives "evaporate"; in recent years, that number has grown. In 2003, Detective Frank Swiggart of the Modesto County Agricultural Crimes Unit did manage to nail one offender who stole thousands of hives. Swiggart also sets up "sting" operations (a pun he very much intends) with aircraft patrols and global positioning system locators each pollination season, but the perpetrators generally get away with their buzzing booty. "You see people working on beehives in the middle of the night with white outfits and netting, you assume it's their bees," he said.

Almond ranchers generally stick to more lawful methods of solving their pollination problems, however. Almond growers supplied half of all of bee research funding last year, in the hopes of propping up the bee supply by developing a better miticide or breeding a more varroa-resistant bee. In 2004, the USDA for the first time allowed almond ranchers to import hives from Australia and New Zealand, but the jet-lagged bees proved far less efficient than their northern counterparts. Farmers have also tinkered with Africanized bees and other pollinating insects, but none is nearly as diligent as the European honeybee in moving pollen from flower to flower. And native pollinators, already devastated by pesticides, disease and habitat loss, aren't designed to survive on a single crop that spans thousands of acres and flowers for only a few weeks every year.