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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Largest U.S. Beekeeper Hit by Colony Collapse Disorder

With Almond Pollination Under Way, New Signs of Trouble Emerge

2.19.2008 10:13 a.m.
Editor's Note: Maryam Henein is working with George Langworthy on The Vanishing of the Bees, a documentary film about colony collapse disorder (CCD) and the state of honey bees in America. She is a guest contributor to The Beekeeper, writing about the pollination of the almond crop in California, where honey bees are put to their first test of the season on a commercial crop.

Specific names have been removed because a prevailing sentiment among beekeepers has it that admitting to colony collapse disorder problems reflects badly on them (it should not). We believe the news is important enough to print using anonymous sources, and readers can be assured that the main facts have been double checked with primary authoritative sources.

Checking Hives in California Almond Country

We’re in the Lost Hills of Bakersfield California on our way to eat breakfast at Denny’s I met the beekeeper who knows where our hives – Agnes, Betty, Cindy and Doris – were amid the orchards. Two weeks ago we named four hives with a magnum Sharpie so we could track them throughout the seasons as they are shipped from one bloom to the next.

We scarfed down our breakfast and then set out for the orchards to find Agnes. Oh my God. California has more than 580,000 acres planted in almonds. Row after row after row of evenly spaced almond trees. Mind blowing. Monoculture at its finest.

I rolled down the windows and cranked up the XM satellite radio to Extreme Chill. I listened to BassNectar as I rode down this dirt path with bees whizzing by me. Every few yards there were bee boxes on the ground and a sign that read, “Bee Drop.”

Eventually, the beekeeper I was with started making his rounds, checking that the lids were on properly and that there were no problems. He also marked them with spray paint for transport. There are so many different beekeepers here that you need to carefully track each hive. Bee theft is also common around almond bloom season. One beekeeper had 80 of his hives stolen this year.

Finally we found Agnes sitting in the sun. We opened the lid to take the frames out. She was healthy. And we even spotted Agnes the Queen. Wow. She was beautiful. Golden, Big and Royal. “She looked fertile,” George said.

We then found Betty and Cindy. But we didn’t get a chance to look for Doris. In the early afternoon we set out to meet Frieda, a 76-year-old bee broker who works with her two sons. A bee broker is a go-between, linking the almond grower with the beekeeper. She is the one who coordinates the shipping and placement of hives.

"Miles Upon Miles of Empty Hives"

We next wanted to visit a beeyard of one of the biggest beekeepers in the orchards. They had shipped nearly 100 semi loads of bees to this beeyard (each truck has about 400 hives on it) from the midwest back in October. He placed them on this ranch away from any food source. He told us that he wanted to keep them away from any land used for agriculture, where they spray pesticides. There was no food for the bees, nothing to forage, but he gave them pollen substitutes and corn syrup. The bees were healthy then, but now the view was haunting. It looked like a cemetery. Miles upon miles of empty hives. White empty boxes in lieu of tombstones.

It was like we were visiting a funeral. It was sickening and surreal. There were only a few dead bees to be found. It was a mass exodus, a bee holocaust.

“You know in the Christmas Carol, when the ghost shows him the future? This is our future,” one beekeeper said as we parked in front of towers of dead outs. It was a moment to remember. It was a moment in beekeeping history. Our bees are dying. I can’t even fathom what I saw today. Words don’t do it justice.

We ended the day by going to eat with the beekeepers. Of course we went to Denny's. During dinner, we were reminded that there is a stigma about CCD. No one wants to talk because people will think that it’s their fault. It’s not, you know.

“Beekeepers are not activists, they’re just going to quietly slip away,” said another.

I don’t want to believe him. I want to believe that they will put on their bee suits, grab a hive tool and go protest in the streets. We want our bees back.

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