Quit Buzzin' Me 

Five Questions for a Beekeeper

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SOMETIMES, at parties or bars, after alcohol loosens my tongue, I let slip that I'm a professional beekeeper. This is a big mistake.

Most people have at least a few bee questions stowed away, ready in the off chance that they run into a beekeeper. I suppose a well-adjusted beekeeper would be happy other people find their livelihood so interesting, but I've never met a well-adjusted beekeeper, and the problem is that everybody, whether they be doctors, plumbers, beer guzzlers, or martini sippers, always asks the same questions. Sometimes I'm in the mood to offer up colorful anecdotes about getting stung in the groin, or pontificate on the best breed of queen bee (Carniolans are better than Italians, damn it!), but I've had the same conversation so many times I'm starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Here I offer answers to the five most common beekeeping questions—in hopes that I will never have to answer them again.

(1) HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BEEN STUNG?

I've been stung 3,976 times. Kidding. I actually have no idea. How can this be? Consider the following story:

On a bright morning years ago, I was moving a truckload of live beehives to one last farm after working all night placing bees in carrot fields to pollinate for a seed company (we do this in the dark because bees go into the hive every night and stay there until morning, allowing for them to be moved without leaving any bees behind). As I took my buzzing cargo through Madras, Oregon, the truck went around a corner and hit a bump. Four beehives flew off the back of the truck and hit the road at approximately 35 MPH.

Imagine four hives, each containing about 40,000 bees, striking pavement at a high rate of speed. Envision the worst-case scenario. That's exactly what it was like.

I'd estimate about 100,000 bees survived the impact and then tried to kill me as I frantically cleaned up the mess before the fire department showed up. The furious insects stung me 30 times in a matter of seconds, and then I stopped counting.

So let's just say I've been stung 3,976 times.

(2) IS BEEKEEPING, LIKE, A REAL JOB? WHAT DO YOU DO—SELL HONEY?

When my parents started our apiary 30 years ago, they were selling honey at craft shows, fairs, and fledgling co-ops. Decades later, cheap foreign honey has driven prices down, but the bees still make it, so we still sell it. In a good year, we'll harvest and sell 250,000 pounds of the stuff wholesale. But mainly modern commercial beekeepers use their bees as mobile pollination outfits. Our year starts with almond pollination in California, then it's on to Willamette Valley berries, Hood River pears in the spring, and Madras carrots in the fall, just to name a few.

Our bees get a lot of travel, which means we do too. California almond pollination is the big season, and beekeepers bring hives from as far as Florida to provide the estimated one million honeybee colonies required for almond pollination. I've spent many February and March nights in San Joaquin County, California, moving bee hives into almond orchards in the night, passing other beekeepers on the long, dark California highways. So yes, I guess you could call beekeeping a job. But I'd say it's more like a life.

(3) DOES HONEY CURE ALLERGIES?

No. That is, unless you believe it will, in which case it will work just as well as alternative treatments like acupuncture, flaxseed oil, or stinging nettles. Actually, it will probably work better than stinging nettles.

There may be something to be said for eating local, raw honey to alleviate allergies, because it contains tiny bits of pollen and other allergens, which when ingested may stimulate the body to build resistances, in the same way a vaccine works. The fact that there's no scientific evidence whatsoever to support this cure (and, as the National Honey Board will tell you, it's not for lack of trying) hasn't discouraged gaggles of people from attempting it. It probably fails because most people are allergic to grass seed, and bees don't pollinate grass.

My advice is to mix a nice batch of herbal tea, sweeten it with a tablespoon of local, raw honey, and use that to wash down your favorite allergy pill.

(4) WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I GET CAUGHT IN A SWARM OF BEES?

First of all, the word "swarm" is a technical term used to describe a very specific bee behavior. When a hive gets overcrowded, the workers will raise a new queen (by feeding an egg copious amounts of royal jelly, which facilitates the development of her queenly reproductive organs), and one of the two queens in the colony will take a percentage of the hive's population and set off in search of a new home. The ensuing cloud or cluster of bees is a swarm.

Swarms are actually relatively safe. When bees don't have a hive or honey to protect, they're pretty docile. So if bees are attacking you, it's more likely you've stumbled upon their hive. At this point, the bees will be quite eager to sting, even though it kills them when the stinger pulls most of their guts out with it. A healthy queen can lay more than 1,000 new eggs per day, so when bees have the backing of a hive they'll gladly sacrifice themselves to inject venom into your face.

What to do? You should run away as fast as you can.

Side note: Sometimes people ask if they should jump in a pond or lake and use a hollow reed as a snorkel until the bees leave. I've never tried this method, but it strikes me as a phenomenally stupid idea.

(5) WHY ARE ALL THE BEES DYING?

In 2006, media reports emerged about a vexing new malady called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which causes bees to simply vanish—no bodies, nothing. Being a former newspaperman myself, I can see the headline appeal: "The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Bees." But talking about CCD is like reading an exclamation point and ignoring the entire sentence that came before it. The problems facing North American honeybees have been building for decades, beginning with the introduction of the blood-sucking, parasitic varroa mite from East Asia in the late 1980s. Combine that with a landscape increasingly drenched in herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, diminishing genetic bee diversity due to streamlined breeding, loss of habitat, and a host of new maladies (my favorite is Nosema, a microsporidian that causes bee dysentery), and it's no wonder bees are all screwed up. Hell, if I were a bee, I'd probably want to disappear too.

However, I've never seen this strange new ailment, and frankly our bees have enough problems without CCD. Sorry, but we can't blame this on some weird new disease, and there's no clear solution, short of people ceasing to fuck up their own ecosystems.

So why are all the bees dying? It's because we're killing them.

And with that, I'm retiring from active beekeeping education. Henceforth I'll carry a copy of this manifesto, in case I'm asked about bees again. "I guess you didn't read this," I'll say. These are my official answers. There will be no time allotted for follow-ups. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get a beer and have a nice chat with my friends about the weather, the most recent sporting match, or whatever the hell else other people discuss.

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