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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While the winter of 2006 offered a brief respite, thanks to a big harvest that kept bees well-fed and healthy over the winter and, no doubt, illegal use of unapproved materials, in 2007 some beekeepers are seeing losses that equal or surpass those of 2005. The drought in the northern-tier states left pitiful honey stocks to keep the bees strong over the winter, and the varroa is back in force. In addition, a mystery malady, dubbed "Colony Collapse Disorder," is sweeping through the apiaries, leaving many hives almost completely devoid of adult bees, which appear to abandon their hives and disappear. Apiculturists are looking at a number of potential culprits, from bad weather to bad corn syrup to genetically modified corn to pesticides to miticides, and many suspect the problem is compounded by the presence of the varroa mite, which weakens colonies so that invading pathogens pack a particularly destructive punch. (Scientists suspect the 2005 die-off was exacerbated by a viral event.) While Miller's bees have not, so far, been affected by the colony collapse, beekeepers in 24 states have reported losses as high as 80 and even 90 percent, and many of the afflicted bees have been in the almonds, rubbing shoulders with Miller's relatively healthy ones.

Twenty years ago, when a beeyard failed, bad beekeeping practices could most likely be blamed for the collapse. Today, the problem lies with the precarious, single-cropped, single-minded state of modern agriculture. It is too unvaried, too big, and too much is being asked of the bees that service it. "Modern agriculture is pushed harder than it ever used to be," said Miller. And it is being kept aloft by ever more fragile wings. The bee is the smallest visible link in the chain, and its illness is illustrative. "I'm not a Pollyanna. I know what's coming," he said.


Still, beekeeping has its rewards. In the almonds last winter, in the brief season of reprieve between the first great varroa debacle and the current nationwide die-off, Miller checked his bees. There had been a dreadful killing frost the night before, and early in the afternoon the temperature finally climbed to 42 degrees, the threshold above which the first scouts will venture out of the hive to look for pollen. Once the scouts locate the nectar, the worker bees follow, spreading out among the almonds, dancing from blossom to blossom. In 2005, the bees were so sick that you could walk through the hives without a bee suit. But in 2006, Miller kept his losses to 8 percent — a bad year under normal circumstances, but these days, there is no normal.

Miller drove his truck along a dirt road and stopped between two endless rows of almond trees. Then he shut off the engine to listen to the humming sound of thousands of honey bees at work in the blossoms. "Hoo hoo! You guys go!" he shouted. "Look at 'em buzz."

Hannah Nordhaus is a Boulder-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, Outside, and other publications. Photographer and filmmaker Singeli Agnew's documentary on migratory beekeepers will be released in June.