"Go down east and it's quiet," Jack Tapp says of North Carolina’s coastal plain, where the land is a checkerboard of agricultural fields. "There's nothing natural that flies anymore." Tapp works 16 hours a day, six days a week running a Chapel Hill-based apiary with a thousand beehives. Only a few decades ago, farmers could rely on wild bees and other insects to pollinate their crops. Now that wild bees have all but disappeared, beekeepers like Tapp play an increasingly important role in putting food on our tables. Bees are responsible, directly or indirectly, for every third bite of food Americans eat: $15 billion worth of food each year. Trouble is, Tapp and many like him worry beekeepers are disappearing, too.
Tapp didn't set out to be a commercial beekeeper. Retired from work as an aeronautical engineer, a test pilot, and a sheriff's detective, he decided to keep a few hives as a hobby. One day he got a call from an agricultural official. "I hear you've got twenty hives. I've got a small blueberry farmer down south, and he needs twenty hives. The larger beekeepers won't touch him." Tapp loaded up his bees and drove to the North Carolina - South Carolina border.
Now in his mid-60s, Tapp owns one of North Carolina's thirteen largest commercial apiaries. Of those, eleven owners are at least 60 years old. Tapp's wife helps him with his business, along with two men who are both Tapp's age or older. The three men work building and repairing hives, extracting honey, and loading 80-pound hives full of bees onto trucks so they can be taken to fields. Their ages are not unusual among beekeepers: seventy percent of America's beekeepers are over 45. Many are retired.
During my visit to Tapp’s apiary just outside Chapel Hill, I asked him, "I'm wondering, does fifteen billion dollars worth of food a year depend on a bunch of retired hobbyists?"
I fully expected him to tell me I was exaggerating. Tapp turned his head, looked me in the eye and with a straight face said, "Well, yeah."
There are about 125,000 beekeepers in the United States. More than ninety percent do it as a hobby; eight percent are sideliners, people who keep bees as a part-time business. Only 600 are commercial beekeepers with a thousand hives or more. Some of those are migratory, spending the better part of the year on the road, moving as crops bloom. Farmers typically pay anywhere from $35 to $60 to rent a hive of bees during bloom; most crops need at least one hive per acre.
Even among commercial beekeepers, there's quite a bit of gray hair. Dan Conlon, who owns Warm Colors Apiary in Massachusetts, says, "you go to these meetings, if you're 50, you're young." Conlon and many others worry about the future of beekeeping: with few young people getting into the business, beekeepers wonder if their skills and experience will be lost. Beekeeping isn't the most attractive career, and not just because of the insect stings: the costs are high, the risks are great, and the lifestyle can be hard on family.
Besides honey, bees are perhaps best known for pollinating. They work more than ninety different food crops. Some of those are very dependent on bees just to produce anything; bees help others yield better results. Citrus trees don’t need insects to set fruit, but $504 million worth of oranges a year can be attributed to bees -- enough of a difference that Florida growers rent hives.
Bees don’t just pollinate your food, they pollinate food for your food. Alfalfa and clover, both cattle feed, need to be pollinated in order to produce seeds for the next year's crop. California alfalfa growers bring in honeybees to do the job. Bees, then, are an important link in dairy and beef production.
Bees also make fruit and vegetables more perfect by impacting shape and size. With commercial demand for uniformity, growers put a lot of trust in bees to turn a profit. While it may take only one night and a single sperm to produce a human being, perfect fruit doesn't happen in a solitary encounter.
Jack Tapp says he can guarantee a 300 percent increase in strawberry volume with just one hive of honeybees per acre. Each time a bee pollinates a strawberry flower it creates a seed. The berry must then develop the flesh to support each new seed. More bee visits create bigger berries.
Cucumber growers are heavily dependent upon bees for perfection. Cucumbers and melons need insects to reproduce; the pollen grains are too heavy and sticky for wind to do the job. Bees must visit a flower a minimum of nine times to produce a cuke, and a minimum of thirteen times to get a perfect one, the kind that fits nicely into pickle jars and makes a farmer money. (Gherkins make the most.) If a blossom is inadequately pollinated, the cucumber will be deformed: too short, large on one end and small on the other, or curved. Bottom line, a deformed cucumber doesn't make a pretty pickle or top dollar, and can only be sold for products like relish.
Almond growers are just as dependent upon bees, and it is the almond industry appearing in headlines most these days when it comes to bees. California produces 100 percent of the US commercial almond supply and 80 percent of the world's almonds. Two years ago, when the American Beekeeping Federation estimated half the bee colonies in California died over the winter, panic ensued. Keepers imported bees from Australia just to meet demand. Rental fees shot up to $80 a hive, and as much as $120 at the last minute. Keepers reported stolen hives, with at least one losing tens of thousands of dollars overnight. Some growers hired patrols. Thefts not only hurt the beekeeper, but the almond orchards where the bees are working. Bloom, the window of pollinating opportunity, only lasts about three weeks, with each flower open for three to five days. And it takes time to get bees.
No cattle rancher could survive a fifty percent loss in livestock without assistance, and beekeepers are finding it just as difficult to manage with their livestock losses. Some are getting out of the business.
Bees get ready for winter by storing food, kicking out male bees, and sealing the hive. (Male bees don't do any work, and so they are a drain on resources.) Bees survive the winter by clustering together and shivering their wings. One tiny bee's shivering wings might not make much difference, but together, 50,000 bees can produce a lot of heat. It can be below freezing outside, but the inside of a hive will remain above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The bees slowly move through the hive as they consume their honey.
Winter can be a particularly anxious time for a beekeeper. Opening the hive could jeopardize the colony's survival, so the keeper must be content with a hands-off approach. Beekeepers have come to expect some winter loss; sometimes the bees can't get to a frame of honey and they starve to death. Hungry bears destroy hives. The worst threat to honeybees in the past twenty years is much smaller: the mite. Two types made their way to the US in the mid-80s. One type, trachea mites, attach themselves to a bee's tracheal tubes, making it difficult for the bee to breathe.
Bee breeders are able to help fight problems like this by breeding bees to possess certain traits. For example, honeybees are bred to be gentle, to be better pollinators, and to resist the impulse to swarm. Breeders have been able to combat the trachea mites in part by breeding bees to use better hygiene. By keeping themselves clean, the bees can help keep themselves free of trachea mites.
Varroa mites are the worst of the two parasites. Nicknamed "vampire mites," they literally suck the life out of bees. A keeper can open a hive at winter's end and find tens of thousands of dead bees inside. Varroa mites are responsible for the massive losses in California. Across the United States, beekeepers lost thirty to fifty percent of their colonies in 2004. Mites, along with pesticides used in farming, have wiped out North America’s wild honeybees. Breeders are working on genetics to develop bees that are resistant to mites, but that takes time and generations of bees. Scientists have come up with chemical treatments to medicate bees, but some render drones infertile. In recent years, scientists have discovered the mites are developing resistance to the drugs.
For thousands of years, bees managed to thrive without human help. Now more than ever, bees need caretakers to help them survive their fight against their most devastating enemy. Trouble is, the same mites draining the life out of bees have had a similar impact on their keepers.
Full-time commercial apiaries make up less than five percent of America's beekeepers, yet they own fifty percent of domesticated honeybees. Most of them are family-run businesses. As Massachusetts beekeeper Dan Conlon says, "it's too much work to not be family."
Conlon is quite busy himself. Through Warm Colors Apiary, he and his wife, Bonita, produce honey, provide pollination services, sell beekeeping equipment, and teach classes. Upon finishing the course, Conlon's graduates are ready to start their own hives. Come springtime, Conlon headed to Mt. Vernon, Georgia to pick up bees for his students and other clients. (Many northern beekeepers lose their bees over the winter, so they depend on southern beekeepers to supply them with bees.)
Conlon's supplier is Jon Hardimon, a queen breeder whose career has spanned six decades. The Hardimons recognize Dan when he pulls up, and they know he's got a long road ahead of him. Even though other beekeepers have been waiting for days, the Hardimons will "shake" Dan's bees first.
Shaking bees is exactly what it sounds like. Hardimon recruits strong, young people for this job; it's hard on the knees. The workers lift 80- to 100- pound hive bodies and physically shake them over small wood boxes with screens on two sides. The bees tumble through a funnel into these packages. Each one holds three to four pounds of bees. The package is finished with a punctured can of corn syrup -- food for the bees on their trip -- and a small cage that holds a queen and her attendants. The men shaking the bees work from dawn to dusk; they will work 12- to 16-hour days from the beginning of spring until June.
Conlon and Hardimon talk business. When Hardimon started, keeping bees was easier. The greatest worry then was a bacterial disease called foulbrood. "Now, people new to beekeeping have a much steeper learning curve," Conlon said. Conlon says keepers who didn't follow the rules are to blame for the quick spread of mites in the United States; with little regulation, mites spread throughout the country in a matter of months on the trucks of migratory keepers. The impact was so disastrous, even the best keepers couldn't keep a colony alive for more than a few years. 30 years ago, the government counted 200,000 beekeepers in the U.S., with more than 4 million hives. Now there are 38 percent fewer beekeepers managing 2.4 million hives. (The number of hives has been steadily declining for almost 60 years; in 1947 the US had 6 million hives.) Many experienced keepers quit in frustration, including a significant number of people who specialized in breeding queens. In Conlon’s words, the industry lost a lot of collective brainpower.
When the Hardimons finish loading Conlon's bees, the clock starts ticking. The bees can survive only a few days at most in packages; they need new homes. Conlon and his wife drive 24 hours straight, hauling 2400 pounds of bees in a pickup truck and a makeshift trailer. He uses digital thermometers to keep a close eye on them. Conlon can stand in front of his truck and feel the heat coming off. In the center of the mass of packages, the temperature could reach 130 degrees -- hot enough to literally cook the bees. He controls this by pulling over at a rest stop occasionally to spray the bees down with water. Conlon says he used to apologize to people who gave him strange looks. Now he just waters his bees and keeps going.
Money, or lack of it, can keep a hobbyist from becoming a commercial beekeeper. It takes an investment of about $200,000 to start with 300 hives, and most of that is infrastructure. Each hive costs about $200, including bees. "Most young people don't have that kind of money, or don't have access to it," said Jack Tapp, who is a vocal advocate for bees and keepers in North Carolina. Low interest loans aren't typically available to beekeepers. "Every cent of it is a risk," Tapp said. "The banks want land or something in collateral. A bee isn't good collateral." Three hundred hives aren't really enough for a commercial beekeeper to turn a profit. The margins are thin, and the first real profit comes in slowly: a beekeeper can't survive off pollination rentals alone, and it takes time to produce and harvest honey.
David Tarpy is an entomologist at North Carolina State University, and much of his work helps support beekeepers. He notes the government doesn’t give beekeepers the same financial resources it gives farmers. "The government says beekeeping is not an agricultural enterprise. It assists agriculture."
Just how much assistance bees provide is a recently hard-learned lesson in North Carolina. Historically, tobacco has been the state's primary crop, but after the tobacco settlement, legislators encouraged growers to get into other crops. What the legislators overlooked, though, was that the farmers would need bees to pollinate those new crops. "Thousands of acres didn't get pollinated because there weren't enough bees," Jack Tapp said.
In 2004, Tarpy secured a grant from the non-profit Golden Leaf Foundation to help increase the number of beekeepers in the state. The cost-sharing program provides mentoring and two hives of bees to 250 new beekeepers. More than 2800 people applied, including farmers who wanted to start keeping bees for their own crops. Even people with a few hives, Tarpy says, have a significant impact on pollination. Hobbyists own half the domestic bees in the nation and produce forty percent of America’s honey.
The morning after Dan Conlon returned to Massachusetts with a ton of bees, he and his wife get up early, preparing for students to pick up their bees. By 9:00am, there is a small crowd standing around a shed as Conlon marks queens with paint so new keepers can easily find them. Some escapees are buzzing around his head, landing on his clothes, in his hair, and on his fingers as he works. Conlon doesn't seem to notice they're there. In the afternoon, Conlon's class sits on the ground around an empty hive body for their last lesson: how to install a bee package.
Conlon's three dozen students are a diverse group, with just as many women as there are men, many of them in their 20s and 30s. They have their own reasons for getting into beekeeping: some for honey, some for their gardens, some because they want to support the environment. Some are interested in apitherapy, the practice of using bee venom to relieve arthritis and other conditions. One woman says the charmer in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes inspired her.
Conlon takes the queen cage out of the package and gently lays it aside. Then Conlon gives the package a shake, and a cluster of bees rolls into the super (a wooden box) that will be their new home. More bees fly into the air, circling around his head and the students on the ground. No one flinches or waves them away. There are still some bees in the package, which Conlon sets aside.
Conlon reinforces lessons he's taught throughout his time with this class. He shows them organic methods to help control varroa mites. "If you do nothing, you'll probably lose your bees at some point," he tells them. Conlon, though, doesn't advocate excessive use of chemical treatments. He encourages his students to think long-term. One of his goals is to help rebuild a native sustainable bee population. It may take generations, but over time, descendants of the queens from Georgia will build colonies with the strength to survive the Massachusetts climate; bees may even develop resistance to mites. "Strong colonies can medicate and heal themselves," Conlon says.
Just a few decades ago, the beekeeper's main message to the general public was to limit use of pesticides. Now, keepers like Jack Tapp believe people need to be even more aware of honeybees and the people who keep them. Cutting back on pesticides in the garden, or finding organic alternatives, is a part of it. "People will have to choose," Tapp says. When he was young, food didn't have to be perfect in order to be acceptable. "If there was an apple with a yellowjacket [bite], you just ate around it."
Tapp says another solution is to encourage more people to keep bees as a hobby. Tarpy says two states are taking a good look at the North Carolina cost-assistance program as a model. Classes can be found in every state, and hobbyists live in the country, the burbs, and urban areas. There are beekeepers in New York City, with hives on rooftops.
Bees and humans have had a beneficial relationship for thousands of years. Without new, stronger generations of bees and keepers, we'll all feel the sting. "Where it'll hit is in the grocery store," Tapp says. "Soon people will be paying two dollars for a cucumber if we're not careful."
Shaun Chavis (aka shaunchavis) is a soulful Southerner back home in Alabama after a spell living up North, where she finished a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. She awaits the acceptance of her thesis. She's spent most of her life in newsrooms and kitchens.