“The Silence of the Bees”

High Country News, March 19, 2007

The perilous existence of a migratory beekeeper

By the time John Miller realized how many of his bees were dying, the almonds were in bloom and there was nothing to be done. It was February 2005, and the hives should have been singing with activity, plump brown honeybees working doggedly to carry pollen from blossom to blossom. Instead they were wandering in drunken circles at the base of the hive doors, wingless, desiccated, sluggish, blasé. Miller is accustomed to death on a large scale. “The insect kingdom enjoys little cell repair,” he will often remind you. Even when things are going well, a hive can lose 1,000 bees a day. But the extent of his losses that winter defied even his insect-borne realism. In a matter of weeks, Miller lost almost half of his 13,000 hives — around 300 million bees.

When it happened, Miller was in California’s Central Valley, where each February, when the almond trees burst into extravagant pink-and-white bloom, hundreds of beekeepers descend with billions of bees. More than 580,000 acres of almonds flower simultaneously there, and wild pollinators such as bumblebees, beetles, bats and wasps simply cannot transport enough pollen from tree to tree. Instead, almond ranchers depend on traveling beekeepers who, like retirees in Winnebagos, winter in warm places such as California and Florida, and head north to the Dakotas in the summer, where fields of alfalfa and clover produce the most coveted honey.

This annual bee migration isn’t just a curiosity; it’s the glue that holds much of modern agriculture together. Without the bees’ pollination services, California’s almond trees — the state’s top export crop — would produce 40 pounds of almonds per acre; with the bees, they can generate 2,400 pounds. Honeybees provide the same service for more than 100 other crops, from lettuce to cranberries to oranges to canola, up and down the West Coast.

Miller likes to call the annual pilgrimage of the beekeepers the “native migrant tour,” and he likes to call himself the tour’s “padrone.” He has thinning brown hair and an eternally bemused expression, and he never stands still. He is an observant but rebellious Mormon, and he doesn’t look the part of the flannel-and-rubbers-clad beekeeper: His usual uniform includes surf shorts, a baseball cap, running shoes and a race T-shirt. (He has run 25 marathons.) Miller, who is 52, is not the biggest beekeeper in the United States, nor is he the most politically connected — South Dakota’s Richard Adee, with his 70,000 hives, wins that distinction.

But Miller does, like the gentle, dark Carniolan bees he tends, have impeccable breeding. His apian pedigree dates back to 1894, when his great-grandfather, a Mormon farmer named Nephi Ephraim Miller, traded a few bushels of oats for seven boxes of bees. Nephi found he had a talent for beekeeping, and in 1907, he traveled from Utah to California to learn more efficient ways to process his swelling supplies of beeswax. While there, he noticed that California bees gathered nectar long after those in Utah had huddled in for winter. It occurred to him that if he shipped his bees somewhere warm in the cold months, he might halve his winter losses and double his honey production. The following winter, the Miller patriarch took to the rails with his apian cargo, following the blossoms from northern Utah to San Bernardino County. Bees have been on the road ever since.

The beekeeping industry tends to progress at a glacial pace — Miller often calls his fellow beekeepers “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” who “don’t play well together and with society in general,” stubborn agrarian throwbacks whose business practices run toward the medieval — but there have been a few truly revolutionary advances in the technology and methods of beekeeping. The 1852 Langstroth hive, with its multiple, removable, systematically spaced frames, allowed beekeepers to inspect, move, split and take honey from their hives without destroying the honeycombs or killing thousands of bees in the process. This innovation paved the way for migratory beekeeping, which permitted the harvest of previously inconceivable amounts of honey. Nephi Miller was the first to enlist rail cars for long-distance transport, and in only a few years he produced the first million-pound crop of honey, brought beekeeping into the industrial age and inspired generations of beekeepers to follow suit. He was, in short, the Henry Ford of the apiaries.

Today, some elements of a commercial beekeeper’s life remain the same. John Miller’s bees ply some of the same fields that hosted his great-grandfather’s hives. He sells his honey on a handshake to the same processors his grandfather used and competes with the sons of the same men his father vied against. He spends 300 days a year with his bees and gets stung almost every day, as many as 50 times on a bad day. Just the same, he counts bees among his most reliable companions. “A honeybee only has a 900,000-neuron brain, so if I conduct myself within the framework of the honeybees’ limited understanding, they’re fine,” he said. “I understand bees. I don’t understand people very well.”

Recently, however, even the simple task of understanding bees has become more difficult. Like much of modern agriculture, beekeeping has changed. Where Nephi used trains and telegraphs to conduct his business, John Miller’s tools of the trade are semi-trucks and contracts and spreadsheets and amortization schedules. Where Nephi made his income from honey, most beekeepers now derive all of their profit from pollination fees. Nor could Nephi expect the kind of nationwide, devastating losses that John Miller and his colleagues experienced during the almond bloom of 2005. Thirty years ago, there were nearly 4 million bee colonies in the U.S. Today, fewer than 2.5 million remain, thanks to a reddish-brown parasite so tiny it could stand on the head of a pin, and to a malady so new no one is sure of its origin.

Even before 2005, the keeping of bees could be likened to a continuous natural disaster: Infections rage, queens die, drought withers flowering plants, equipment rots, vandals and bears and skunks raid. Miller’s banker once told him that a beekeeper should be prepared to fail two out of every seven years. “Why don’t I get out?” Miller asked. “I love bees. They work hard; they’re well behaved; they’re selfless; they’re generous.” His apian affections run deep, from the bee-striped rug in the entryway of his home to his Salt Lake Stingers baseball cap to the yellow-and-black-striped German felt-tip pens that he encountered in an office supply store. When they were discontinued because of their propensity to leak, he bought out what remaining stock he could find. He carries them with him everywhere he goes, and you will frequently see him with an ink stain on his fingers and shirts. The love of the bee is an impractical passion.

The life of a migratory beekeeper is even more fraught. First, there is the issue of pasture, especially in more urbanized southern climes. “One of the toughest parts is obtaining sites to put bees on people’s property,” California beekeeper Orin Johnson told me. Miller’s winter digs lie about a half-hour northeast of Sacramento, and as the strip malls, megamalls, minimalls and subdivisions encroach, it is harder to find a spot that is accessible and mud-free, and that provides sufficient nectar and pollen for the bees to survive until pollination season begins in February. He solves this problem by storing his hives in cool, dark potato cellars in Idaho from November to late January.

Then there’s transportation. Moving the hives from Idaho to California in January, from California to the Washington apple orchards in March, to North Dakota in May and then to Idaho in November requires hiring and coordinating workers, forklifts, tankers of syrup to feed the bees during fallow times, and 30 flatbed semi-trucks. Nor does the hassle end once the trucks are on the road. In 2004 and again in 2005, Miller crashed bee-laden semis and had to peel equipment and smeared bees off the road for days. Even worse was the tanker of corn syrup that flipped on Interstate 80 north of Stockton, rendering the road a lubricated bowling alley. “I was not very popular with the California Highway Patrol,” said Miller.

People are also a problem. There’s the annual “trauma and drama” of finding employees who don’t mind working in a maelstrom of stinging insects and are willing to leave their families for months at a time. Then there are the disagreeable beekeepers who dilute their honey with water or syrup or don’t take good care of their bees; unsavory almond ranchers who play beekeepers off each other for lower pollination fees; thieves who pilfer hives; neighbors who complain. Besides objectionable humans, beekeepers must also contend with invasive insects, parasites and diseases; Africanized bees, which invade domestic hives, interbreed with European honeybees and create more aggressive, less diligent offspring; hive beetles that eat their way through a colony’s larvae, pollen and honey, defecating every inch of the way and leaving a foul, gelatinous goo in their wake; fire ants that hitch rides on traveling hives and wreak havoc on crops; and microscopic tracheal mites that set up shop in a honeybee’s breathing tube and shorten its lifespan.

The beekeeper’s biggest enemy in recent years, however, has been a miniature, blood-red arachnid called the varroa mite. A remarkably adaptive, ticklike creature, the mite burrows into unborn brood and adults alike, feeding, as a tick does, on the bee’s body fluids. It is, said Miller, a “sinister predation” that slowly saps the strength and vigor from a hive, either killing the brood outright or causing deformities that weaken adult bees and make them more susceptible to viruses. And this mite is — besides labor, pasture, honey prices, pollination prices, bacteria, fungi, unpleasant neighbors and other invading insects — what beekeepers think most about these days. “This is going to be the challenge of my career, there is no question about that. My grandfather never heard of it; my dad was barely aware of it; it occupies much of my problem-solving time. This varroa mite,” said Miller, “swaggers like a colossus across beekeeping in North America.”

The parasite, which is endemic to Asia, first arrived on U.S. shores in 1987, most likely smuggled in some eager apiarist’s luggage. (Bee importation has been illegal in this country since 1922.) It caused negligible damage in Europe, where it first appeared in 1908, because the beekeeping industry is smaller and far less mobile. In the U.S., however, the mite jumped from hive to hive with alarming rapidity. “In the U.S., beekeepers are a bunch of mechanized gypsies, moving from crop to crop all through the year chasing pollination fees and honey flows,” said Frank Eischen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist tasked with searching for new medicines to keep the invaders at bay. “Because of all this unnatural movement, some colonies get stressed, and they may be more susceptible.”

During the first wave of infestation, the varroa killed nearly every feral colony on the continent. Well-kept colonies like Miller’s, however, escaped major damage, because application of a common miticide kept the bug in check. Over the course of the next decade, though, the mites developed resistance to that treatment. They acquired immunity to a second compound after only three or four years. And in the winter of 2005, beekeepers realized, too late, that the current medicines were no longer working. No operation was untouched: Miller, who lost 40 percent of his bees, was considered lucky; some of his colleagues lost more than 60 percent of their hives. “We hauled semi-loads of dead bees and equipment from the orchards,” Miller recalled. “In the old days we were shouting and spitting and swearing if we had an 8 percent dud rate. Now people would be happy with that.”

Nowhere has the bee shortage been felt more acutely than in the Central Valley of California. The area is the most productive agricultural region in the nation — on Earth, in fact — but there is little rural romance here. The valley smells like a brew of fertilizer, chemicals and manure, and it hosts an eternal ebb and flow of mostly Hispanic migrant workers. Venture along Crows Landing Road, Modesto’s gritty main agricultural strip, and find taco stands, chicken farms, “El Tio Auto Sales,” John Deere dealerships, flea markets (“you can buy anything you want,” said Miller, “a wet umbrella, a dry umbrella”), and acres and acres of almond trees.

Almonds are planted in an orderly diamond grid, each tree leaning ever-so-slightly to the northwest, whence come the most damaging winds. The sandy loam and Mediterranean climate of Stanislaus County are perfect for the mass cultivation of almonds, which, like the honeybees that allow them to propagate, are imported from Europe. “When God was thinking about almonds, this was the dirt he made,” said Miller. The nuts grow nowhere else on earth in such prodigious numbers; California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which have become obscenely profitable in recent years, the result of recent almond-affirming health studies, a European almond craze and a strong Euro. Almond ranchers break even if the nuts sell for more than $1 per pound wholesale. In 2005, they sold for three times that price, grossing California almond growers somewhere around $3 billion.

As prices have risen, more and more farmers in the area have plowed over their cotton and grapes, and almond harvests have grown from 236 million pounds 20 years ago to over a billion today. When I traveled with Miller to Modesto the year after the varroa swaggered across California, we drove to a high point in the middle of an almond ranch. From there, we could see nothing but mile after monocropped mile of pale pink petals extending from the western horizon to the eastern mountains. On the back roads near Modesto, it is easy to spot an almond rancher’s home amid the otherwise pedestrian rural structures; the almond growers have trophy stuccos, driveways invariably lined with palm trees. Miller likes to draw a graph of the rise of “cabins owned by almond guys” at Lake Tahoe from 1960 to the present — a soaring diagonal, approaching infinity. Meanwhile, said Miller, “bee guys don’t even have timeshares at Tahoe.”

As with everything in agriculture, of course, such almond-fueled prosperity will probably be fleeting. The Modesto-based California Almond Board expects a 50 percent increase in the supply of almonds in the next five years, which should depress future prices and place even more demands on the failing bees. Although there were sufficient hives for almond pollination this year, “about 70 percent of the transportable colonies in the U.S. are coming into the almonds right now, and we’re going to have about a 25 percent increase in bearing acreage in the next four to five years,” said Chico almond farmer Dan Cummings. “So do the math. We’re going to have a problem.”

So what is bad for the bee guy is bad for the almond guy. But the reverse is also true. In the last four years, the price for a pound of honey has fallen below what it costs to produce it — a victim, like many homegrown industries, of cheaper Chinese competitors with names like “Wuhan Bee Healthy Co.” It is the almond, therefore, that keeps bee guys afloat. To pollinate the ever-growing numbers of trees, beekeepers have transported 1.4 million hives into the almond orchards this winter. Like most migratory beekeepers (there are fewer than 1,000 of them in the country), Miller takes every single one of his 10,000 hives to California for the almond bloom, generating most of his annual income in the three weeks that the trees are in flower. As bees have dwindled and almond acreage has soared, pollination fees have risen from $30 per hive in the late 1990s to around $140 this winter.

And so, too, has a black market in bees, as poachers, mostly renegade beekeepers, steal hives from one orchard and rent them to desperate almond ranchers down the road. Each almond season, around 1 percent of Miller’s hives “evaporate”; in recent years, that number has grown. In 2003, Detective Frank Swiggart of the Modesto County Agricultural Crimes Unit did manage to nail one offender who stole thousands of hives. Swiggart also sets up “sting” operations (a pun he very much intends) with aircraft patrols and global positioning system locators each pollination season, but the perpetrators generally get away with their buzzing booty. “You see people working on beehives in the middle of the night with white outfits and netting, you assume it’s their bees,” he said.

Almond ranchers generally stick to more lawful methods of solving their pollination problems, however. Almond growers supplied half of all of bee research funding last year, in the hopes of propping up the bee supply by developing a better miticide or breeding a more varroa-resistant bee. In 2004, the USDA for the first time allowed almond ranchers to import hives from Australia and New Zealand, but the jet-lagged bees proved far less efficient than their northern counterparts. Farmers have also tinkered with Africanized bees and other pollinating insects, but none is nearly as diligent as the European honeybee in moving pollen from flower to flower. And native pollinators, already devastated by pesticides, disease and habitat loss, aren’t designed to survive on a single crop that spans thousands of acres and flowers for only a few weeks every year.

When Emily Dickinson wrote, “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee, / And revery. / The revery alone will do / If bees are few,” she could not have anticipated the state of apiculture today. The millions of acres of intensely planted crops at the center of the American agribusiness machine simply cannot produce without the help of the beekeepers’ pollinating army, but honeybees are ill-suited to withstand the kind of stresses they encounter when they travel from crop to crop, intermingling with bees from other places and the viral, bacterial and parasitic hitchhikers they bring with them. “You’ve got bees coming from all over the U.S. with all of their respective regional problems, and they’re all being put in close proximity in California’s almond orchards in the spring,” said Cummings. “It just stands to reason that any malady anywhere in the U.S. is going to come to California and affect the other hives.”

As with bees and flowers, and almond ranchers and bee guys, the Dakotas and California are part of a symbiotic relationship. To make money pollinating almonds, a beekeeper has to find a place to park his bees in the summer, when California crops are no longer blooming. While he’s there, he might as well do what bee guys are supposed to do — make honey. Miller’s honey production takes place in Gackle, N.D., a fading prairie town of 300 senior-citizen farmers that embraces every agricultural cliché Modesto doesn’t — the lonely dairy silo standing sentry at the edge of town, the undulating sloughs teeming with wildfowl, the clapboard, one-room, Depression-era library. In Gackle, they don’t lock their doors or use blinkers on their trucks, because they all already know where they’re going. I visited Miller there during the honey harvest last August, and as he drove me through the quiet streets to his house, he gave me the lowdown on his neighbors: “That guy drinks. I gave that gray pickup to that guy — I want it back. That family is from Washington, they have lots of kids, we don’t trust them.”

Five of Miller’s six neighbors own farms on which he places his bees. It is some of the finest bee pasture on earth, carpeted with white clover in springtime, purple alfalfa during midsummer. He pays his neighbors with honey. Thirty years ago, he would provide them with five-gallon buckets, but these days most families are happy with five-pound jugs, or even small honey bears. That’s because families in Gackle aren’t what they used to be. Industrialized agriculture has taken hold even in this bucolic corner of the country. There are bigger farms and fewer farmers, who have fewer kids, and those kids tend to leave for college and never come back. Since mid-century, the town has lost more than half of its residents. (You can buy a house there for as little as $10,000.) The local school, the only public K-12 within 40 miles, contains 110 students; 12 graduated last spring; only four entered kindergarten this year.

The region’s decline poses something of a labor problem for Miller. As with the children of the other farmers in Gackle, Miller’s four kids have no intention of going into the bee business — they prefer law, nursing, accounting. “I don’t wish the bee life on them,” said Miller. “I want to move in with them, own a car and a Visa card to go with it.” His brother Jay’s kids are equally averse to a career in the bees, so he hopes instead that a trusted employee will take over the business. For the day-to-day work, “I’ll hire any schoolkid who will walk in the door,” Miller said. “The problem is there aren’t any schoolkids.”

Instead, he brings South Africans over on temporary visas — mostly white Afrikaners who blend in well among the industrious German farmers who populate this region of the country. Last summer, due to an unprecedented heat spell in the northern-tier states (temperatures reached as high as 120 in July), the nectar gave out early. The corn, which should have towered overhead, was instead knee-high and brittle, the alfalfa drying and bitter. Expecting a disappointing harvest, Miller decided to pull the plug on the August crops and “clean up” his hives for winter early. With two South African employees, he set off to remove the honey boxes from a beeyard a couple of miles outside of town, in a meadow full of buckwheat and fading alfalfa florets, with a couple of dozen stacked, white-painted hive boxes bunched haphazardly in the middle. Lighting up a smoker to calm the bees, they opened up a box or two and examined the queen, who sits among her minions like a rock star in a mosh pit, and then loaded the 50-pound boxes onto pallets and onto trucks headed to the “honey house,” a small, hot, acrid processing plant where the honey is extracted, separated from the beeswax and poured into barrels.

Once the honey is packed, a local woman measures and classifies each barrel for sale, assigning numbers depending on how dark the honey is. The lightest honeys, such as those produced from clover and alfalfa, are the most valuable, since honey packers can mix them with darker late-season and southern honeys to achieve a consistent, supermarket-friendly color. The type of honey produced depends on the flowers bees visit, and those in the bee business talk about different honey varieties the way oenophiles discuss wine — eyes closed, tongue on the roof of the mouth. Orange-blossom honey, for instance, has a “citrusy finish” and goes well with food; buckwheat honey, which is favored by Orthodox Jews and Muslims in New York, has a “big, sheepy nose”; star-thistle honey tastes like a “wall of sunshine”; clover honey is delicate and pure and never too “forward.” Miller loves honey; he pours jugs of it over his food. Nevermind that he loses money with each barrel.

While the workers handle the honey, Miller deals with the mites. Each day in August, without fail, Miller or an employee heads to his “Frankenstein yard” to monitor the incursions of the varroa mite. He places “stickyboards” — white cardboard rectangles coated with Crisco — under each hive, and each day, he counts the number of mites that have fallen to the board and enters it in a spreadsheet; the more red specks on the board, the heavier the mite load. During my visit, I suited up in a beekeeper’s three-piece suit — white canvas jumpsuit, veil and gloves — and joined him to count the sinister dots in batches of five, trying not to lose count through the netting, the glare of the stickyboard, and the insistent humming bees crawling on my arms and landing occasionally on my veil. “In the dictionary under the word ‘collapse,’ ” Miller said, “there’s a stickyboard with 2,000 ticks on it.”

To forestall that collapse, beekeepers’ best hope is to find another material that will keep the mite under control, but colonies must survive until those treatments are developed and approved by the EPA. “There are products on the horizon, but that doesn’t help that beekeeper right now,” said the USDA’s Eischen. In the meantime, beekeepers have been using home remedies such as oxalic acid, a natural wood-bleaching compound that can, with regular, conscientious application every three days for the varroa’s 21-day breeding cycle, disrupt the mite’s progress. This is a difficult task, however, when dealing with tens of thousands of hives, and it is also illegal — Richard Adee’s outfit was recently fined $14,000 by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for using oxalic acid and another unapproved pesticide on its hives. Which leaves beekeepers with exactly nothing.

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.”