The past few years I’ve begun to burn my beekeeping equipment. Frames and boxes, varnished with beeswax from years of use, keep the house warm. Other equipment I’ve stored in the barn. Chickens roost on the lip of the extractor, and last year a hen started setting in a settling tank.
I’d love to start with bees again, but I’ve become discouraged by all the death. I look out back at empty hives still standing in my yard and feel the urge to hear again the hum of thousands of bees flying in all directions, to pop open a hive and smell the rich, moist, fecund scent of live bees and honey, but I’m scared.
The fear began for me in 1992. Always before I’d loved working with bees. That’s not to say there were never snags, such as the time bears ripped apart a stand of hives, looking for tasty baby bees (I tried a few myself and I’m not sure why the bears went to the trouble), or the occasional times hives inexplicably turned nasty and sent cartoon arrows of bees straight for my hair. But these were exceptions, spice, more adventure than tragedy. Generally, the work was deliciously hard and deeply soothing. Watching and working with bees provided me a somatic understanding of cooperation and compliance: work against bees and they sting; work with them as they work with themselves and they reward you with honey, joy, and sore muscles.
Everything changed in 1992. The year started wonderfully, a hot, wet spring that by mid-June produced a waist-deep carpet of blue and purple wildflowers, with leggy stalks of white and yellow sweetclover reaching higher still. Hives bubbled with bees, and the hundred thousand tiny insects that comprised each colony filled boxes with seventy pounds of honey as fast as I put them on. The bees were happy, and so was I.
Then bees started dying. Each time I visited a site, I found more empty hives. The bees were gone, presumably dead in a field or the grass around the hive. Thousands of baby bees–grubs–lay dead in their sealed honeycombs. I dreaded the drive to outlying sites, and at home dreaded even looking out my back window. At first I blamed the weather–it didn’t rain from mid-June to early September. Then I blamed pesticides. Then urban sprawl. But most of all I blamed myself. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, but it had to be something.
It was strange solace to learn that bees were dying everywhere: solace because this meant the deaths weren’t my responsibility; strange because I had to ask what sort of solace it was to be discovered in such loss.
That year, one-quarter of the beehives here in Washington State died. Things were no better elsewhere, and since then they’ve gotten worse. A 1996 American Beekeeping Federation survey of last winter’s kill reads like the casualty count of a horrific battle: “Maine, 80% loss . . . Massachusetts, 55-75% . . . Michigan, 60%.” Small-scale beekeepers have been hit especially hard, and hit harder still have been feral hives–swarms that flew away from managed beehives to find homes in caves or hollow logs. Once, feral colonies made up half this country’s honeybee population; now, virtually all are dead.
The cause? Varroa mites, creatures the size of a pin’s head. No one knows how varroa mites arrived in this country, but the best guess is that in the 1980s a beekeeper smuggled honeybee queens from South America or Europe, hoping their offspring would work even harder, pollinate more effectively, and give more honey than honeybees already here. But along with queens the beekeeper accidentally brought varroa mites. Because bees touch and feed each other constantly, mites spread throughout hives into which the queens were introduced, then clung to bees as they entered other colonies, quickly invading hive after hive. Since commercial beekeeping is often a highly migratory occupation, with beekeepers following blooms from Florida to the Dakotas, the Dakotas to California, or California to Washington, within a few years mites overspread the continent. Varroa mites, tiny as they are, weaken bees, cause deformities and paralysis, introduce viruses, and ultimately kill entire colonies.
It would be as pointless as it would be easy to blame the die-off on the smuggling beekeeper. The same is true for the mites. While the beekeeper and mites are certainly immediate causes of the collapse, the collapse was long inevitable anyway. The only questions that have ever been relevant are when and how.
Modesto, California, is beautiful in February. Not the town itself, but the surrounding orchards. Hills roll for miles covered in white-blossomed almond trees. Hundreds of thousands of acres bloom in essential simultaneity, and if pollen isn’t carried from flower to flower almonds won’t form. Although monocropped miles of almond flowers may be beautiful, they’re as unnatural as Frankenstein’s monster; the staggering number of blooms to be pollinated in these densely packed orchards grossly overmatches the capacity of such wild pollinators as bumblebees, moths, wasps, beetles, and so on to set fruit, causing almond ranchers to pay beekeepers up to $40 per hive to bring in bees for the three-week bloom. This means beekeepers from across the country bring bees to the San Joaquin Valley every year, following the promise of warm wintering sites for their bees, honey, pollen, a head start on the season back home, and lots of cold hard cash.
Almonds aren’t the only crop needing pollination. Apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, cucumbers, watermelons, muskmelons. Each of these densely packed crops requires similarly densely packed beehives to set fruit. The same is true for seeds of other crops: onions, cauliflower, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, radishes. Without bees, these crops disappear. No one knows what the diminishment of honeybee pollinators will ultimately do to the huge acreages of monocrops that characterize modern agribusiness.
What I love most about bees is their gentleness. The popular impression of honeybees as sting-happy bundles of animosity waiting to zap you is wrong. Given how we treat them, their patience is remarkable. If someone removed your roof and stole your food, simultaneously crushing your sisters, wouldn’t you be inclined to retaliate? Generally, bees don’t.
If you approach a hive to watch them come and go, at first you’ll see chaos, but soon patterns emerge. Here’s a bee circling the hive, memorizing the landscape of her home. Another bee returns heavily laden with nectar; tired, she falls short of the entrance and crawls the last inches. A guard challenges the newcomer, then greets her and lets her pass. From inside the hive you hear a low hum, which rises in pitch if the top is removed, then throttles down as bees resettle. You see workers dancing in circles, telling their sisters where to find food. You see the queen, long and sleek like a greyhound, laying egg after egg–one-and-a-half times her weight each day. You see plenty of bees hustling frantic as commuters, and you see plenty more doing not much of anything (in the lingo of bee research, “loafing”). Most important isn’t what you see or hear, but what you feel. Peace. To verify this, ask a beekeeper, or better, tag along when one opens some hives. But do it soon.
The strengths that have made modern beekeeping the foundation upon which the agricultural infrastructure rests are precisely the weaknesses that have made beekeeping, and more broadly modern agribusiness, vulnerable to something tiny as the mite. These are the intertwined attributes of standardization (the use of one pollinator across many crops), density (the annual gathering of a half-million hives to pollinate almonds, for example), and mobility (the transport of bees, and consequently mites, to and from all parts of the country).
Years ago, bees taught me about cooperation and compliance. More recently they taught me about loss. Now, as I watch modern beekeeping collapse under the weight of its own strengths, they’re teaching me that the modern industrial economy–based as it is upon these same traits of standardization (the conversion of forests to tree farms, grasslands to cornfields, diverse cultures to capitalism), the short-term maximization of resource usage, and the absolute mobility of resources–faces the same vulnerabilities as beekeeping.
The decline of the modern beekeeping industry was inevitable. The varroa mite is not the first hit of this type beekeeping has taken in recent history; lesser only in degree have been problems caused by tracheal mites and Africanized (killer) bees. Of course remedies have emerged in each case to mitigate the damage, with beekeepers using the chemicals fluvalinate and menthol to slow varroa and tracheal mites, respectively, and wearing double- and triple-suits to work with Africanized bees. But the casualty count of dead hives testifies to the increasing resistance of mites to these chemicals, and Africanized bees continue to kill horses, cattle, other bees, and occasionally people in Mexico and farther south.
It’s not the end of the world. It’s not even the end of beekeeping. Each year, new people discover the richness of this ancient craft, and for them high losses and an ever-widening spiral of chemicals and other treatments may simply be part of the bargain.
As for me, this year I watched a pair of nuthatches try to squeeze into an empty beehive. No matter how they tried, they couldn’t make it. With saw and file, I made them a home. They raised babies there, and seemed to like it. So did I.
Originally published in the October 13, 1996 issue of “The New York Times Magazine”Filed in Essays