Bee Smart: The Honeybees are in Trouble

Story and photography by Gina Yu

This article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

"You could say that it runs in my blood, but I wouldn't say my blood is thick with honey. It's thin. Think like the way a Northerner makes their sweet tea," says Adam Hickman of Foxhound Bee Company in Birmingham, Ala. His great-grandfather was a beekeeper and one of the best at making honey from Sourwood trees that bloom along the Southern Appalachia. Hickman remembers him, vaguely. But at age 13, one look at his late great-grandfather’s smoker and honey extractor sparked a curiosity in him that intensified over the next 12 years.

Now he’s a chef by trade and a beekeeper after hours. “What it takes to be a beekeeper isn’t found in your run-of-the-mill person,” he says. “It takes a little crazy ... It’s the logical crazy that tries to separate the rational from the emotion- al and that talks to itself when surrounded by 60,000 stinging honeybees.”

The honeybee we all know (Apis mellifera) is responsible for pollinating, conservatively, one-third of all the food we consume. Along with herbs, spices and even coffee, honeybees pollinate crops like fruit and wood; in other words, anything from what we eat to what provides us with shelter. “Flowering plants cannot walk, swim, fly or jump to find a mate, so many are reliant on bees to deliver their genetic material,” explains Rusty Burlew, writer for Honey Bee Suite and director of the Native Bee Conservancy.

This year, Hepzibah Farms in Talladega, Ala., experienced an extreme example of the bees’ impact. Created in 2011, the farm is a collective of partners that include a lawyer, two artists, a statistician, an IT guy, a student on hiatus, a baby and one person who actually grew up on a farm. Last winter, they erected a massive hoop house using bamboo and greenhouse plastic to extend their growing season and have better control over humidity. Spring came, and their squash plants were small. Very small. The issue? The hoop house had essentially trapped the plants inside, eliminating access to pollinators. “We immediately hiked up the sides of the plastic and planted more flowers inside to help attract bees,” Co-founder Rachel Rowe says. The bees were in there the next day, and the plants grew to normal sizes. 

There is no question — bees are absolutely essential to life. “Ever see a misshapen apple, pumpkin or squash? That happened as a result of the absence of honeybees on the flower that produced that fruit,” Hickman says. Like most of us, he’s purchased peaches out of season. Small, hard or verging on rotten — “Like a dirty chalkboard eraser, they are the perfect reminder that something is wrong,” he says. “That is what I believe a world without honeybees would be like: expensive, dirty chalkboard erasers. That’s the big picture.” Honeybees labor their entire lives for one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey — but it’s about more than the honey. For the flying, buzzing insects, it’s about the hive. 

The hive is a democratic society. Honeybees communicate with each other by dancing. Using what is called the waggle dance, they direct each other to the exact location of nectar, using their relation to the sun or distance from the hive. The figure-eight movement was discovered by Karl von Frisch who was subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973. “They make decisions and come to a consensus,” says Stephanie Masters-Norton of We Three Beeks in Birmingham, Ala. The honeybees devote their entire lives to the health of the larger community. As a group, they create their own heating and cooling, controlling the hive’s temperature with their wings. Yet when a honeybee stings, it dies. “The individual worker perishes for the good of the colony; a true suicide mission,” Burlew says.

In the duration of a bee’s short life, she will be responsible for every role at some point. As soon as a bee hatches out of her cell, she immediately begins cleaning it, making it ready for the queen again. Young bees are responsible for feeding the larvae and then progress through other jobs such as wax building, cleaning, processing incoming nectar and pollen, guarding the hive and foraging outside of the hive. All worker bees are female but do not possess the ability to reproduce. Male honeybees are called drones, because they are just kept on standby for mating with the queen during the summer. With no purpose in the winter, drones are expelled from the hive in autumn. Male bees do not have a stinger, and after mating with the queen, they die.

The worker bees decide when to replace their queen; whether they should collect more nectar or if they should collect pollen or water instead; when the males are thrown out of the colony for the winter; and if the nest should be expanded or contracted. “It’s a common misperception that the queen rules the colony. While the queen does hold the fabric of the colony together, she has almost no power. Her job is to lay eggs,” explains Damian Magista, owner of Bee Local Honey in Portland, Ore. 

As the queen ages, the pheromone she emits changes, signaling her decline. The workers then begin creating a new queen to replace her; they choose a young larvae and feed it copious amounts of royal jelly (larvae nutrition that is secreted out of worker bees’ mouths). When a new queen emerges, her first duty is to sting and kill any other potential queens who have yet to emerge from their cells.

The more mature forager bees fly around to flowers, extracting as much nectar as possible during the day. Middle-aged curing bees take the nectar from the foraging bees and remove 80 percent of the water from the nectar to concentrate it. How? By flapping their wings! Their wings also create static electricity when they fly, which attracts the loose pollen grains to their hairy bodies. “Their legs are basically brooms designed to rake the collected pollen into a special pollen compartment on their leg,” Hickman says. The nectar is brought to perfectly made cells in the hive — small cavities built into hexagons, the most durable shape possible with the least amount of resources. The concentrated nectar is stored and sealed as honey, so that it’s available during the winter. 

As eusocial insects, honeybees earn the highest degree of sociality in insects, which means they have overlapping generations (different stages of life are all represented in the hive), cooperative brood care (all members are responsible for caring for the young) and a sterile worker caste (labor is divided into specialized reproductive and non-reproductive work). “The honeybees’ strict adherence to social duty is why they’ve evolved and thrived for so long,” says Megan Paska, author of “The Rooftop Beekeeper” and known as the “Brooklyn Homesteader.” “Each bee is married to the colony as a whole. No single bee operates alone and if any piece is out of sync, it doesn’t work — the bees will fail and die.”

Unfortunately, instinct or intelligence isn’t enough to defend the hives and hard-working bees. Have you noticed how produce and nuts have dramatically risen in prices? The decline of the honeybee population is responsible. Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?a 2010 award-winning documentary film, addresses the global disappearance of honeybees due to Colony Collapse Disorder — resulting in a massive revival in bee preservation and understanding.

CCD is the spontaneous abandonment of a hive by honeybees, an occurrence that happens naturally. Scientists saw a rise of hive collapses around the 1970s and calculated the disorder to be reaching dangerous rates in 2006; beekeepers reported losing 30 to 90 percent of their hives in October of that year.

Although numerous claims have been made regarding the cause of CCD, the United States Department of Agriculture says no specific cause has been determined. Some contributing factors are pathogens, parasites and stress caused by hive overcrowding or environmental factors such as a lack of diversity in nectar or pollen. Companies like Local Bee Honey avoid CCD by practicing sustainable beekeeping, which means no chemical treatments are used on the hives and they avoid exposure to pesticide-heavy mono-crop environments. “Losses due to CCD is a shot across the bow that we must take notice of,” Magista says. “They are telling us that we cannot continue producing food using current large-scale agricultural methods. It’s unhealthy for the bees and for us.”

A few generations ago, beekeeping was a skill that was essential for families; survival at its simplest. Burlew’s grandfather used to take her on walks to check on “bee trees” of wild colonies, and her breakfast table was never lacking honeycomb. Cary Norton of We Three Beeks was inspired by his grandfather Charlie Cornelison, a beekeeper of 40 years, and Hickman was hooked after a look at his great-grandfather’s beekeeping equipment. Now, it’s part of the global foodscape. With the rise of people who care about their food and where it comes from, they’re caring about bees. And luckily, once you start to take notice, it’s pretty hard to look away.