Beekeepers try to keep bees - and livelihoods - from going extinct
CORVALLIS, Ore. — On a recent summer morning in a bright green meadow off a winding country road, Devon and Landon Prescott were prying open beehives. They moved quickly among the 1,400 wooden boxes, eyeing each brood and locating its queen.
Landon, 19, spoke up after finding four hives with missing queens.
"That's pretty bad," said Devon, 21, peering over his brother's shoulder to search the bee-covered screen. A hive without a queen is likely doomed. "That's really high."
There was a crate of replacement queens in the truck, each housed in its own tiny wooden box. Each queen, specially ordered and shipped from warm-weather climates, cost at least $20. Too many queenless hives could put young beekeepers like the Prescotts out of business.
Over the past decade, billions of bees have been lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), an umbrella term for a host of factors thought to be killing honeybees in droves and threatening the nation's food supply. Amid the die-off, beekeepers like the Prescotts have been going to extraordinary lengths to save both their bees and their livelihoods.
That effort may finally be paying off. New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the number of managed honeybee colonies is on the rise, climbing to 2.7 million nationally in 2014, the highest in 20 years.
Bees are still dying at unacceptable rates, especially in Florida, Oklahoma and several states bordering the Great Lakes, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a research collaborative supported by the USDA. Last month, Ohio State University's Honey Bee Update noted that losses among the state's beekeepers over the past winter were as high as 80 percent.
Oregon has been less hard hit. Researchers say innovative beekeepers will be critical to helping bees bounce back.
"People ask me, 'The bees are going to be extinct soon?' " said Ramesh Sagili, principal investigator at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab. "I'm not worried about bees being extinct here. I'm worried about beekeepers being extinct."
Beekeeping in America was already a graying industry when the rigors of colony collapse began taking their toll. A new generation of backyard beekeepers and urban hobbyists worried about the fate of bees has sprung up in the face of the disorder, said Tim Tucker, a Kansas beekeeper who serves as president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
But "what's not increasing are the commercial levels of beekeepers," said Tucker, who estimates that the number of professionals on his membership list has plummeted by half since the mid-1990s.
That makes Devon Prescott something of an anomaly among the nation's estimated 2,200 commercial pollinators: A young man. He networks with other beekeepers on Facebook and Instagram, and sees his work as an essential part of a global cause.
"I feel a social responsibility to provide good bees," Prescott said. "It makes me happy to look at the part that I'm playing."
Still, Prescott, who trucks bees from the almond fields of California to the cherry orchards of the Columbia River Gorge, worries about the economics of the business. He said he's lost track of the number of hives that have turned up dead or queenless since he started keeping bees four years ago. Each dead hive equals a loss of as much as $200.
Back in his truck, Prescott shook his head. "Why are they so hard to keep alive?"
He looked across the cab at his brother. "What do you think, Landy?"
"I don't know why it's so hard. They've been around so long," Landon said. "Why would we need to help them so much?"
Obsessing over bee health was unheard of 50 years ago, said Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota professor of entomology. "In the past, it was very easy to keep bees. Throw them in a box and they make honey and survive. Now it takes lots of management."
Researchers believe a variety of factors are responsible for colony collapse: Monocultural farming practices, diseases and pesticides. Also, the tiny Varroa mite, which sucks bee blood, leaving open wounds. The mite arrived in the United States in the late 1980s and "has changed the face of beekeeping," Sagili said.
Bee death was not new to beekeepers. In their 2012 working paper, "Colony Collapse Disorder: The Market Response to Disaster," agricultural economists Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman write that seasonal die-offs have always occurred, with beekeepers losing 14 percent of their colonies, on average, each winter.
But since colony collapse was first documented in 2006, the annual die-offs have been far more dramatic, forcing beekeepers to use increasingly creative techniques to keep their flocks alive. One common tactic: Restocking queenless hives with fresh, new queens. Another: Splitting a healthy hive in two, and starting a second hive with a new queen. Beekeepers can also turn to packaged bees, which cost about $55 for 12,000 workers and a fertilized queen.
"Beekeepers know what to do," Rucker said in an interview. After 2006, "they adjusted and they adjusted quickly."
Research suggests that beekeepers are being at least partially compensated for that effort with higher honey prices and higher pollination fees. For California almonds, which require the pollination help of 1.6 million hives per year, beekeepers earn roughly $175 per hive.
Other crops pay significantly less, however. In Oregon, blueberries, cherries and pears, for example, pay around $40 per hive.
Then there are the long seasons and constant travel. In Oregon, commercial beekeepers work from January to October, pollinating not only crops of fruits and vegetables, but also the multibillion dollar seed and wine industries in the Willamette Valley.
And beekeepers who avoid big colony-collapse losses face other potential disasters. In late June, a semi truck filled with hives tipped in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, sending the load tumbling off the highway. Hundreds of thousands of bees perished.
"It is hard and it costs a lot of money," said George Hansen, past president of the ABF and a beekeeper in Oregon for the 35 years. "There's a certain toll you have to pay for when things go wrong. . . . How many times can you take those kinds of hits and still get up and do it again?"
Henry Storch, 32, does it because he feels a calling to beekeeping. A farrier by trade, Storch said he could make more money shoeing horses. But five years ago, he became obsessed with the notion that he could build a better bee.
"I put some out in the middle of nowhere and the bees were doing really good," Storch said, popping open a hive with his bare hands. He barely flinched as a bee stung him on the upper lip.
Storch's mountain-bred "survivor" bees are like open-range cows: Tough, hardened and less in need of close management than the bees he trucks to the California almond fields. Storch compares the effort to growing organic, non-GMO food.
"I'm trying to create something with a certain set of traits that's more resilient, that provides a solution to world problems," he said.
Storch keeps his costs low, using his arms instead of a forklift to load each 60-pound wooden hive onto his 20-year-old truck. Low costs mean he can experiment.
Rumbling through the Oregon wilderness, for example, he noticed a profusion of invasive plant species. He wondered: Can I make honey from that?
"If you're worried about having non-native species here, you'll just get bummed out," he said. "With the bees, it's potential."
In the wildlands of Oregon's Coast Range, Storch found that his survivor bees thrived on invasive plants. He began bottling the result, selling jars of honey produced from weird, rarely seen varietals such as bigleaf maple, blackberry and lotus — even poison oak.
The idea has resonated among Portland's foodies. One Portland cafe, Sweedeedee, uses Storch's Old Blue Raw Honey in all its baked goods; a local food critic declared the salted honey pie "divine." Another high-end bistro hosted a $50-per-plate, four-course "honey brunch" featuring Storch's honey in everything from honey-cured bacon to honey "drinking porridge."
While Storch depends on almonds to stay in business, he always keeps some survivor bees in the mountains to make their "really rad honey."
"Bee breeding has gotten really skewed toward almonds," he said. "That's part of why I'm doing my own thing."
Earlier this year, Storch separated five breeder queens from his survivor colonies and gave them away to beekeepers in California.
Storch hopes the bees, bred deep in Oregon's thickly forested bear country, might just be a first step toward saving bees around the world.