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The Green Beret Beekeeper

image of Eric Scigliano

Deft as a surgeon, Dan Harvey pries the top off a Styrofoam carton and removes a wood-lathe frame from inside. He rears back, straight as a soldier at attention, to inspect the contents. Beeswax cells fill the frame, holding plump, healthy honeybee larvae that show no sign of disease. The queen that begat these larvae has done her work well, bestowing a valuable genetic legacy. Harvey pokes among the bees scrambling atop the wax frames till he finds her, her fertile abdomen half again as long as her daughters'. He lifts her gently and, with a paint pen, makes a neat white dot on her back, marking her as a keeper.

Harvey works bare-handed; gloves would spoil his dexterity and endanger his precious charges. But jungle-camouflage pants and old-fashioned black combat boots protect his legs and feet, and a camo field cap covers his close-trimmed silver hair.

Harvey came by his military garb and bearing the old-fashioned way. He fought in Vietnam as part of the Special Forces, the legendary Green Berets, during the peak war years of 1968 and ’69. Like many vets, he struggled to find his place after returning to Michigan, where he grew up. He tried factory work but hated it. Seeking solitude in the woods, he became a fur trapper, setting lines in the woods of Pennsylvania and Michigan. Then his uncle -- a former POW who had come home from World War II feeling similarly disaffected -- showed him another way to work with animals.

Harvey’s uncle had found contentment raising honeybees -- tiny exemplars of the military discipline, industriousness, and self-sacrifice that Harvey found missing in civilian life. He taught his nephew the basics. "I liked the transition from catching animals for their fur to catching live bees," Harvey recalls. "Instead of killing them, I was learning how those creatures have adapted and how they fit in."

Harvey, by now married, reenlisted in the Army in 1981 but still kept a few hives on the roof of his off-base housing. When he left the service again in 1984, he and his wife Judy set out to realize a dream they had long cherished: to get away from it all and start an apiary on Washington state’s remote Olympic Peninsula at the northwest corner of the contiguous United States, the rain-drenched hinterland that the writer Murray Morgan dubbed "the last wilderness."

The west side of the peninsula is damp and chilly most of the year -- an unlikely place to raise sun-loving honeybees -- and it took the Harveys more than a decade to find the contentment they were looking for. For 13 years Harvey operated his Olympic Wilderness Apiary as most beekeepers do, hiring hives out to pollinate crops. But the toil was backbreaking and the pace frantic; when farmers need pollinators, they need them now. So in 1997 he packed in the pollinating and began concentrating on two other businesses: producing prized fireweed honey from the forest’s flowers, and breeding queens, which he then shipped to apiaries around the country to seed new hives.

Then Harvey once again found himself at war -- this time, in an evolutionary arms race against an elusive, shifting cadre of pathogens and parasites. In recent years, mysterious nemeses have ravaged honeybee stocks and threatened about 90 different fruit, nut, and vegetable crops -- worth $200 billion worldwide -- that have come to depend on bees for pollination.

In their hives, the Harveys shunned the antibiotics, miticides, and other chemical treatments that commercial keepers rely on -- which can themselves further stress the bees. Instead they focused on two timeless pillars of good health: diet and heredity. They fed their bees generously through the winter on protein-rich pollen cakes, to ensure they would build up enough fat reserves to emerge strong in spring. And they cast around for bee strains that could resist pests and pathogens on their own.

The timing was auspicious; the U.S. Department of Agriculture had just begun urging breeders to look for wild bees that might lend a genetic boost to vulnerable, overbred commercial hives. Harvey found some promising prospects in the Olympic woods. In the early 20th century, homesteaders there had ordered bees (along with just about everything else) from the Sears catalog. Many of those homesteads had since given way to timberland, but the feral descendants of their Sears catalog bees survived.

Dan Harvey interbred them with a strain of honeybee called "suppressed mite reduction," or SMR. The SMR stock, developed by the USDA in the 1990s, was selected for a trait called "hygienic behavior," meaning the bees closely monitor the larvae in the hive and immediately eject those that are dead or sickly. Since mites and bacteria infest the brood first, a rapid response can save the rest of the hive.

In the mid-2000s, when colony collapse disorder began wiping out hives worldwide (see OnEarth’s Summer 2006 cover story, "The Vanishing.”) the Harveys’ bees went untouched -- at first. But then in the winter of 2007-2008, everything changed. Ninety percent of the Harveys’ bees succumbed that winter, and the same share died the next year.

In 2007, as it happened, a new potential culprit came into view in the search for the roots of colony collapse disorder: a single-celled fungus called Nosema ceranae, which is endemic in the Asian honeybee. N. ceranae seems to have first arrived in America 10 to 20 years earlier -- according to one hypothesis, in imports of pollen or royal jelly from China, which have since been banned.

The fungus’s connection to colony collapse disorder remains controversial, but the research is pointing toward a tag-team of Nosema ceranae and some sort of virus (or viruses) as important, perhaps decisive, factors. That’s not to say pesticides (including those applied as treatments to bees), malnutrition, mites, or other stressors might not weaken the bees and make them more susceptible. "Obviously, Nosema and viruses are influenced by other factors such as climate and exposures to toxic chemicals," says Jerry Bromenshenk, a University of Montana entomologist who has probed the fungus/virus connection. "Every colony is subjected to the pressure of large numbers of potentially harmful chemicals -- heavy metals, breakdown products of fossil fuels, solvents, in addition to pesticides. Any and all of these could conceivably act as stressors."

Because Nosema thrives in wet, cool, foggy conditions, Bromenshenk suggests that keepers try to avoid raising bees in such locations. The problem for Dan Harvey was that wet, cool, and foggy describes the Olympic Peninsula for most of the year; his bees lived in a perfect incubator for the pathogens that were rampant in them. But he wondered if that fact might also offer a solution: In order to thrive in such an environment, it seemed as though the bees would have to develop a resistance to or tolerance for nosema. Perhaps he could inject that trait into the commercial stock (See "The Latest Buzz on Bees," Spring 2012, for more on his results.)

He isn’t the only bee breeder looking in the back country for genetic ringers to help strengthen our pampered, inbred, overmedicated commercial bee stocks. One team from Washington State University has been scouring Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, whose impoverished beekeepers can’t afford miticides and other modern treatments; their colonies have had to evolve resistance on their own.

Harvey also sees the damp Olympic thickets as potential sources of natural balms that the bees have learned to use. He waves at the nettles that grow profusely behind his hives and on disturbed ground around the peninsula. "The bees work this occasionally," he says. "Look, there’s one!" A bee lands on the nearest nettle and roots at its pale petals. "The poison in stinging nettle is formic acid -- a miticide,” says Harvey. He suspects that the bees seek it out to combat mites, perhaps by infusing it into the waxy sealant they produce to sanitize their hives.

As he says that, Harvey turns briskly back toward hundreds of hives and queen boxes lined up like soldiers amidst the nettles and hemlock saplings. The weather is uncharacteristically hot on this July afternoon, and the bees are buzzing hungrily. "Can’t be standing around jaw-jacking while the sun’s shining," he exclaims, plunging fearlessly into the swarm. "I’ve got bees to feed!"

image of Eric Scigliano
Seattle-based Eric Scigliano has written about Northwest marine and environmental issues for more than 20 years. His books include Puget Sound, Love War and Circuses, Michelangelo’s Mountain, and Flotsametrics: How One Man’s Obsession with Floati... READ MORE >