Are Bees Too Busy? 

Could factory bee farming be behind the sudden decline in US populations?

All across America, a mysterious disease is wiping out bee colonies. This malady causes all the bees in a hive to seemingly vanish overnight, abandoning their brood in the nursery, as well as their stores of honey and pollen. Other bees and pests, which normally plunder deserted honey, shun these hives. This baffling die-off dealt a financial blow to commercial beekeepers this season and raised fears of environmental and economic disaster. For farmers, no bees means no pollination.

But pollination is happening like mad in Leah Fortin's tiny North Oakland yard. Busy little bee bodies cover the clumps of lavender, salvia, and roses that line her driveway. More bees work the malaleucas on the parking strip, those trees with shaggy bark that look like giant Q-tips when they're in bloom.

A lot of these bees — although surely not all — come from the hive on Fortin's roof. The unobtrusive wooden box, barely twenty inches by sixteen, and thirteen inches high, sits on the tar-and-gravel roof of her stucco bungalow, sheltered by the chimney. Honeybees bustle in and out of the narrow slit along the bottom, delivering bundles of pollen and droplets of nectar, then hurrying out again for more.

"The neighbors call us 'The Little House on the Prairie,'" Fortin said on a recent summer afternoon. "They think I'm a kook."

Fortin, who administers after-school programs, captured this wild swarm in early May, and so far it's thriving. "My book said to take two pieces of cardboard and scoop them into a five-gallon paint can, so that's what I did," she said. "I was scared shitless. I had no idea what I was doing." She covered the can with a net and drove home. "It worked, and there they are."

Fortin put out a small jar of honey to make the new colony feel at home; since then, she's done nothing except peek at them once in a while. "It doesn't matter what you know and what you don't know," she said. "The bees know what they're doing." And what they do is pollinate.

Bees are the most paradoxical of insects. They trigger some of our deepest fears: a dark nest filled with squirming larvae tended by mindless laborers chemically controlled by a queen. And they sting. At the same time, they're linked to some of the sweetest things in life: flowers, honey, and romance. Love them or fear them, they're a key part of the human food chain.

Honeybees aren't native to North America, so indigenous plants don't need them for pollination. If all the honeybees disappeared, we'd still have corn and wheat. But most of the imported fruit and vegetable species we now think of as quintessentially Californian — almonds, grapes, plums, cucumbers, cantaloupe, asparagus — need the help of bees to wed male pollen to female pistil. Without bees, there would be no apples, no cherries, no tomatoes, no zucchini. Even tofu would be scarcer — soybeans depend partly on the honeybee for pollination.

Most of these crops are no longer pollinated by wild honeybees. Like many indigenous insects and plants, feral honeybees have been nearly wiped out by pesticides, loss of habitat, and parasites like the varroa mite.

Meanwhile, commercial beekeeping has come to resemble other kinds of factory farming. While the bees themselves retain more freedom of movement than almost any other living creature raised by man, a commercial bee lot is more like a cattle feed lot than a wild meadow.

Beehives are crammed close together in rows just a few feet apart; in the wild, a square mile supports at the most three or four hives. A wild colony's diet is diverse, comprising pollen and nectar from myriad plants. To compensate for the lack of forage around bee lots, bees are typically fed high-fructose corn syrup, the same stuff that's contributing to a human health crisis. And just like other agricultural livestock, bees become stressed when you crowd them together. They're more susceptible to diseases and parasites, less able to function naturally.

It's all making some bee scientists wonder: Is the epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder real, or are the bees simply being worked to death?

Big Beesness
If you want to put bees' value into dollars and cents, just look at California's almond industry. Almonds are our state's second-largest crop, with farmers raking in $2.34 billion in 2005. This year's yield, grown on 615,000 acres, is expected to be a record 1.310 billion pounds, up 18 percent from last year — despite the dire statistics about Colony Collapse Disorder.

As you drive through the Central Valley, admiring the miles of orchards in bloom, they look so peaceful and natural. In fact, our almond industry depends on a herculean human effort to subvert the natural order of things. In nature, most flowers don't get pollinated. But you don't get a billion-pound harvest by letting nature take its course. In the old days, an orchard owner might invite a beekeeper to keep hives on the land in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The agribusiness way is to rent hives for the two-week almond pollination season. This year, growers paid $150 per hive, placing three to five hives per acre.

Since 1999, beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest have earned four to five times more income from pollination than from the combined sales of honey and wax, according to a survey by Oregon State University.

But it was hairy out in the fields this year, as beekeepers from around the country raced to get their hives to California before they collapsed. Some growers found themselves renting empty hives.

Thousands of beekeepers had done the math and begun building up their stock. It's not uncommon for a commercial operation to run to ten thousand hives, trucking them from California to South Dakota to Florida in the course of a single year. One million hives, or nearly half of all the hives in the United States, were hauled into California this year, according to Randy Oliver, a Grass Valley beekeeper who has pollinated almonds for 25 years.

For a honeybee, the lucrative almond pollination season comes at the worst possible time. The natural lifecycle of a bee colony follows the seasons, with a hibernation-like rest period during the winter. Unfortunately for the bees, California almond trees bloom around February 10, a miserably rainy time of year.

A colony may rear ten to twelve generations of bees in a year. The queen moves through the hive, laying eggs in comb toward the center of the nest. The eggs hatch in three days; the larvae are fed nectar by nurse bees until they emerge from their cells in 21 days to begin work in the hive. A few are male; they're called drones because they do nothing but hang around and eat, on call in case the queen dies and a new queen needs to mate. The females get to work, spending three weeks as house bees. They may feed the larvae, keep the hive clean, attend the queen, or just fan their wings to cool the hive. Some act as sentries, attempting to chase away bears, skunks, and robber bees from other hives. Then they go out to forage for another three weeks, completing the lifecycle. Elderly bees don't retire; they simply fly out one day and don't return.

As the days shorten and the sun dims, the hive produces its last generation of the year. These "winter bees" must survive the cold months and live long enough to raise the vigorous new brood that will bring back the spring pollen and begin the cycle again.

"Winter bees live for about six months," Oliver said. "Come spring, when the hives are moved to almonds, these same bees that survived the winter and raised the first brood then have to go out to forage. They can't do it." Instead of gathering the pollen, the exhausted bees drop dead outside the hive, Oliver surmises.

Eric Mussen, a UC Davis Extension apiculture expert who specializes in beekeeping, thinks malnutrition could be another piece of the syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder — the same kind of malnutrition afflicting Fast Food Nation.

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