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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When Emily Dickinson wrote, "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee, / And revery. / The revery alone will do / If bees are few," she could not have anticipated the state of apiculture today. The millions of acres of intensely planted crops at the center of the American agribusiness machine simply cannot produce without the help of the beekeepers' pollinating army, but honeybees are ill-suited to withstand the kind of stresses they encounter when they travel from crop to crop, intermingling with bees from other places and the viral, bacterial and parasitic hitchhikers they bring with them. "You've got bees coming from all over the U.S. with all of their respective regional problems, and they're all being put in close proximity in California's almond orchards in the spring," said Cummings. "It just stands to reason that any malady anywhere in the U.S. is going to come to California and affect the other hives."

As with bees and flowers, and almond ranchers and bee guys, the Dakotas and California are part of a symbiotic relationship. To make money pollinating almonds, a beekeeper has to find a place to park his bees in the summer, when California crops are no longer blooming. While he's there, he might as well do what bee guys are supposed to do — make honey. Miller's honey production takes place in Gackle, N.D., a fading prairie town of 300 senior-citizen farmers that embraces every agricultural cliché Modesto doesn't — the lonely dairy silo standing sentry at the edge of town, the undulating sloughs teeming with wildfowl, the clapboard, one-room, Depression-era library. In Gackle, they don't lock their doors or use blinkers on their trucks, because they all already know where they're going. I visited Miller there during the honey harvest last August, and as he drove me through the quiet streets to his house, he gave me the lowdown on his neighbors: "That guy drinks. I gave that gray pickup to that guy — I want it back. That family is from Washington, they have lots of kids, we don't trust them."

Five of Miller's six neighbors own farms on which he places his bees. It is some of the finest bee pasture on earth, carpeted with white clover in springtime, purple alfalfa during midsummer. He pays his neighbors with honey. Thirty years ago, he would provide them with five-gallon buckets, but these days most families are happy with five-pound jugs, or even small honey bears. That's because families in Gackle aren't what they used to be. Industrialized agriculture has taken hold even in this bucolic corner of the country. There are bigger farms and fewer farmers, who have fewer kids, and those kids tend to leave for college and never come back. Since mid-century, the town has lost more than half of its residents. (You can buy a house there for as little as $10,000.) The local school, the only public K-12 within 40 miles, contains 110 students; 12 graduated last spring; only four entered kindergarten this year.

The region's decline poses something of a labor problem for Miller. As with the children of the other farmers in Gackle, Miller's four kids have no intention of going into the bee business — they prefer law, nursing, accounting. "I don't wish the bee life on them," said Miller. "I want to move in with them, own a car and a Visa card to go with it." His brother Jay's kids are equally averse to a career in the bees, so he hopes instead that a trusted employee will take over the business. "I'll hire any schoolkid who will walk in the door," Miller said. "The problem is there aren't any schoolkids."

Instead, he brings South Africans over on temporary visas — mostly white Afrikaners who blend in well among the industrious German farmers who populate this region of the country. Last summer, due to an unprecedented heat spell in the northern-tier states (temperatures reached as high as 120 in July), the nectar gave out early. The corn, which should have towered overhead, was instead knee-high and brittle, the alfalfa drying and bitter. Expecting a disappointing harvest, Miller decided to pull the plug on the August crops and "clean up" his hives for winter early. With two South African employees, he set off to remove the honey boxes from a beeyard a couple of miles outside of town, in a meadow full of buckwheat and fading alfalfa florets, with a couple of dozen stacked, white-painted hive boxes bunched haphazardly in the middle. Lighting up a smoker to calm the bees, they examined the queen, who sits among her minions like a rock star in a mosh pit, and then loaded the 50-pound boxes onto pallets and onto trucks headed to the "honey house," a small, hot, acrid processing plant where the honey is extracted, separated from the beeswax and poured into barrels.

Once the honey is packed, a local woman measures and classifies each barrel for sale, assigning numbers depending on how dark the honey is. The lightest honeys, such as those produced from clover and alfalfa, are the most valuable, since honey packers can mix them with darker late-season and southern honeys to achieve a consistent, supermarket-friendly color. The type of honey produced depends on the flowers bees visit, and those in the bee business talk about different honey varieties the way oenophiles discuss wine — eyes closed, tongue on the roof of the mouth. Orange-blossom honey, for instance, has a "citrusy finish" and goes well with food; buckwheat honey, which is favored by Orthodox Jews and Muslims in New York, has a "big, sheepy nose"; star-thistle honey tastes like a "wall of sunshine"; clover honey is delicate and pure and never too "forward." Miller loves honey; he pours jugs of it over his food. Nevermind that he loses money with each barrel.

While the workers handle the honey, Miller deals with the mites. Each day in August, without fail, Miller or an employee heads to his "Frankenstein yard" to monitor the incursions of the varroa mite. He places "stickyboards" — white cardboard rectangles coated with Crisco — under each hive, and each day, he counts the number of mites that have fallen to the board and enters it in a spreadsheet; the more red specks on the board, the heavier the mite load. During my visit, I suited up in a beekeeper's three-piece suit — white canvas jumpsuit, veil and gloves — and joined him to count the sinister dots in batches of five, trying not to lose count through the netting, the glare of the stickyboard, and the insistent humming bees crawling on my arms and landing occasionally on my veil. "In the dictionary under the word ‘collapse,' " Miller said, "there's a stickyboard with 2,000 ticks on it."

To forestall that collapse, beekeepers' best hope is to find another material that will keep the mite under control, but colonies must survive until those treatments are developed and approved by the EPA. "There are products on the horizon, but that doesn't help that beekeeper right now," said the USDA's Eischen. In the meantime, beekeepers have been using home remedies such as oxalic acid, a natural wood-bleaching compound that can, with regular, conscientious application every three days for the varroa's 21-day breeding cycle, disrupt the mite's progress. This is a difficult task, however, when dealing with tens of thousands of hives, and it is also illegal — Richard Adee's outfit was recently fined $14,000 by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for using oxalic acid and another unapproved pesticide on its hives. Which leaves beekeepers with exactly nothing.