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The Vanishing Bee

Beekeeper Jeff Anderson inspects a frame of honeybee brood, or larvae, near his compound in Oakdale, California.
This vital pollinator is in danger. So is our food supply. Why something so small matters so much.

Editor's note: OnEarth's Summer 2006 cover story, reprinted here, was among the first to report the strange disappearance of honeybees and its potential billion-dollar impact on the U.S. food supply.

Bees crawl all over my body. I sit in the mud of a road embankment, watching the throngs that have landed on my legs. At the peak of one knee, three worker bees stand in urgent conference, sniffing: They stroke one another rapidly with their antennae, which house their organs of smell.

All around them, their sisters tumble. Pairs of bees seize each other around their minuscule midsections and wrestle. Others go about their private business in the midst of the crowd, using their forelegs to groom their furry faces and long tongues.

I watch, calm and safe inside my borrowed beekeeper's gear: white coverall, veiled pith helmet, protective gauntlets. Just down the road, Jeff Anderson and his three assistants methodically pry the lid off each of hundreds of hive boxes to check the health of the colonies inside. As the day wears on and the March sunshine warms this little-used ranch road in California's Sierra foothills, more and more bees take flight.

Wild buckthorn bushes lining the road carry clusters of tiny white flowers, their anthers bright with pollen. Bees work the blossoms, packing the yellow grains into smooth depressions on their hind legs, specially designed to carry this fuel (pollen is a high-protein food) back to the hive. On their travels, they transfer pollen from plant to plant, flower to flower, fertilizing the blossoms and allowing them to set fruit. This ancient partnership of pollinator and plant is essential to life as we know it. One-third of the food we eat comes from crops that need animal pollinators, a role often filled by bees but sometimes by butterflies, beetles, birds, or bats. Bee-pollinated foods include squash, tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Unfortunately, the honeybees surrounding me are members of a threatened tribe, whose loss would have a dire effect on farmers, not to mention everyone who eats fruits and vegetables.

Bees became the focus of Jeff Anderson's life 30 years ago when he married his wife, Christine, a beekeeper's daughter. He joined his father-in-law, Joe Tweedy, in the family business. Ever since, he's been shuttling a carefully tended stock of honeybees cross-country, following the bloom of crops from California's early spring fruit orchards to Minnesota's summer fields of clover. Anderson's grown son Jeremy, working beside him, represents the fourth generation of beekeepers in the family. Without the services of managed honeybees, provided by migratory beekeepers like the Andersons, billions of dollars' worth of crops across the United States would fail.

I join Anderson as he opens another hive. Inside, eight wooden frames hold honeycomb whose surface is crowded with bees, all in constant motion though there seems to be no room to move. Speaking with an upper-midwestern lilt -- Anderson grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm -- he points out the queen, about 30 percent larger than the thousands of her worker-bee daughters who feed, build, and clean the hive. One or two black drones, males whose only function in life is to mate with a queen, stroll among the busy workers.

As he moves through the bee yard, Anderson can tell at a glance how each colony is doing. If all is well, the frames of honeycomb will be thick with bees giving forth a contented hum. But sometimes half the frames are bare and the bees just don't sound right. Sometimes the ground beneath a hive box is covered with bee carcasses.

Since Anderson began, in 1976, raising healthy bees has become more and more difficult. In the 1980s, two non-native species of parasitic mite infested North American honeybees. One of the species, Varroa destructor, has proved especially deadly. Meanwhile, safe pastures where bees can forage without being poisoned by pesticides are becoming increasingly rare.

The domesticated European honeybee was introduced to North America 400 years ago by colonists at Jamestown and Williamsburg to provide their settlements with honey; few bees native to the continent produced enough honey to make harvesting viable. Since then, the honeybee has spread into every farmable corner of North America. The cultivation of honey is an age-old pursuit: To maximize its production, beekeepers in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs floated their hives down the Nile to areas of abundant bloom, with some success. Early American beekeepers also transported their colonies -- on buckboard wagons, Mississippi River steamboats, and trains -- also with mixed results; the hives could not always be moved at the right times, the wax in the honeycombs often melted, the worker bees were sometimes left behind while their homes drifted downriver. In the 1940s, when new interstate highways and reliable long-haul trucks made it practical, beekeepers began regularly migrating long distances with their hives, following the flow of nectar as crops bloomed with the changing seasons.

In the boom years following World War II, large swaths of natural habitat across the United States were devoured by suburban development and agriculture. Patches of wild woodland, shrubs, and flowers that had supported native bees dwindled. The common practices of modern agriculture -- the widespread use of pesticides and the tendency to wipe out every wild flowering plant in sight -- began to destroy the pollinators that make farming possible. Beekeepers, accustomed to paying farmers for the privilege of stationing their beehives on land with blooming crops, started to receive payment from farmers for their pollination services. Today, migratory beekeepers follow this trail of money back and forth across the country as pollination fees continue to rise.

The United States and Canada are home to at least 4,500 species of native bee, from the sleek, iridescent blue mason to the plump, lemon-yellow bumblebee. All are at risk. "Where we live in Minnesota," says Anderson, "the local farmers will let their second cutting of alfalfa or red clover bloom, to feed the bees. A number of those people will tell you that the native bees just aren't there anymore."

With the accelerating decline of native bees, honeybees are becoming ever more critical to farmers. American agriculture is addicted to honeybees -- and in the past few years has begun to run short of them. Anderson's spring starts in February, when the almonds in California's Central Valley come into bloom. California has more than 580,000 acres planted in almonds, though commercial beekeepers living full-time in the state hold enough bee colonies to pollinate only about half that acreage.

In the spring of 2005, many of the migratory beekeepers who work the California almond bloom discovered that their colonies had suffered heavy losses during the winter. Across the country, about one-third of all commercial honeybee colonies died out. The result was a pollinator panic in the Central Valley. Fees for renting beehives shot up from about $48 to as much as $140 per colony, a previously unheard-of amount. Beekeepers traveled from as far away as Florida and North Carolina to service California's almond groves. For the first time in 50 years, U.S. borders were opened to honeybees from New Zealand and Australia. The fate of a $1.2 billion crop -- more than half of all almond production worldwide -- rested on the slender back of the embattled honeybee.

Many bee experts assumed varroa mites were a major cause of the severe die-off in the winter of 2005. Yet when researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, traveled to Oakdale, California, where Anderson and a number of his fellow beekeepers spend winter and spring, they could find no correlation between the level of varroa mite infestation and the health of bee colonies. "We couldn't pin the blame for the die-off on any single cause," says Jeff Pettis, a research entomologist at the lab.

Anderson has his own ideas about what caused the almond pollination crisis, and what is most responsible for wiping out honeybees across the United States. "Varroa is a bit of a red herring," he says. "One of the biggest problems is irresponsible use of pesticides and the failure of regulators to enforce the rules meant to protect bees from poisoning."

Over the past few years, Anderson has become a reluctant expert on one particular pesticide, Sevin, and the quirks of the system meant to govern its use. In the summer of 1998, Anderson's hives were stationed on farmland next to hybrid poplar groves managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the International Paper Company. Both sprayed the trees with Sevin to control infestations of the cottonwood leaf beetle, which damages poplars. Soon after, Anderson's bees began to die. He videotaped sick ones as they lay twitching, just outside their hive boxes, in the throes of nerve poisoning from the insecticide. The poisonings would continue long after a Sevin application, he says, because worker bees carried contaminated pollen back to the hive, where it affected the colony for months. More than 50 percent of his bees died.

"I can't comment on the specifics of Anderson's case," says Pettis, "but I do know that Sevin and honeybees do not mix. What he purports could certainly happen. If the bees are storing Sevin in the pollen, when they get to California and feed on it over the winter, it's going to be as toxic as it was when they first picked it up."

In 2001, Anderson and two neighboring beekeepers filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and International Paper seeking $2 million in damages. Anderson has found himself enmeshed in the strange world of pesticide law. He's learned to speak fluent pesticide legalese, committed to memory whole sections of FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), and has become both cynical and stubbornly hopeful about the state of pesticide regulation in the United States. "The law is not broke," he says. "It's the lack of enforcement that's the problem."

A district court judge initially dismissed Anderson's suit. But in January 2005, the Minnesota Supreme Court breathed new hope into the beekeepers' case, noting that by allowing the use of Sevin, Minnesota state policy seemed to conflict with the federally mandated bee caution on the pesticide label, which states that the chemical is highly toxic to bees and warns, "Do not apply this product . . . to blooming crops or weeds if bees are foraging in the treatment area."

The latest court decision makes it possible for the lawsuit to go forward, but Anderson is still hoping for the case to be heard by a jury. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reached an out-of-court settlement with the beekeepers, in which it agreed to stop using Sevin, but International Paper continues to spray its more than 30,000 acres of poplars, which it harvests to manufacture paper pulp and fiberboard.

Unable to keep their hives healthy near the sprayed poplar groves, many beekeepers have moved away from Eagle Bend, Minnesota, where Anderson and his family have summered for decades. After a particularly disastrous series of die-offs in 2002, Anderson moved his hives to fields far from the sprayed poplars, and he now makes a long commute every time he works his bees in the summer. Since the move, the survival rate of his colonies has improved. Even last spring, when many of his colleagues suffered major losses, his colonies did relatively well. He sees this as confirmation that Sevin contamination is finally fading among his hives.

"I'm standing my ground," Anderson says. "If I pick up and move to another state, they'll just blast me with some other pesticide." He's familiar with the chemical disasters that struck beekeepers in Nebraska, Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington in the 1990s, when the insecticide Penncap-M became popular as a defense against corn rootworm, the larval form of a beetle that attacks the roots of corn plants. Penncap-M, a microencapsulated form of methyl parathion, could have been designed as the ultimate bee-killing weapon: a highly toxic, long-lived nerve poison enclosed in tiny, pollen-size beads. Foraging bees packed these pellets into their pollen sacs along with the real thing and carried them home, devastating their colonies.

Corn is easily wind-pollinated, so although bees gather corn pollen, growers don't need them. They see Penncap-M as the cheapest, most efficient answer to their rootworm problem, and its impact on bees has not convinced them to give it up. Significant honeybee die-offs due to Penncap-M are on the wane, but not because of pesticide regulation. Beekeepers who weathered major losses from Penncap-M now keep their hives far from anywhere the pesticide is used. Some beekeepers, however, were driven out of business by massive bee kills, becoming statistics in the long-term decline of commercial honeybees in this country. In the late 1940s, U.S. beekeepers held about 5 million colonies; gradually that number has dropped to about 2.3 million.

At the compound in Oakdale, California, where Anderson and his family spend the winter, his two youngest children, dressed in Confederate gray, are staging a very small-scale reenactment of a Civil War battle beneath tall valley oaks. Anderson walks with me to my car as I get ready to leave. A wry smile creases his face, ruddy from long days out in the weather. "You know," he says, "it's a catch-22. If my bees are nowhere near the poplars anymore, then International Paper can claim it's OK to spray Sevin. So those bee pastures, which we've depended on for so many years, may be lost forever."

image of Sharon Levy
Sharon Levy spent a decade working as a field biologist in the woods of Northern California before taking up science writing full time. She is a regular contributor to National Wildlife and BioScience, as well as the author of the 2011 book Once and ... READ MORE >
It would be such a shame if we lost our bees. I'm finally starting to learn the important role that they have and continue to play in our lives. Thank you for writing and sharing this.