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The Buzz Stops Here

Dying bees have their Colorado keepers in a state of hive anxiety.

Yet, the state is finding itself with some odd opposition: the beekeepers themselves, who remain distrustful of an agency whose inaction, they claim, is pushing them to the brink of extinction. Several keepers declined invitations to participate in the current study. One of them is Tom Theobald, a Boulder County beekeeper since the days of disco.

"I've been working on this problem for seven years," Theobald says. "And it's just a waltz and a waste of time. It's a waste of my time. I'm struggling for survival, and I've already spent an awful lot of time with these people."

"I think we're going to have to go around the state," adds Johnston. "If we want anything done I just don't think we can expect it of them. They're incompetent."

So the beekeepers have come up with their own explanation. The primary culprit, they say, is a highly toxic pesticide called Penncap-M, a byproduct of fifty-year-old nerve gas research. In a flurry of public relations moves that have state agricultural officials scrambling--and, in some cases, as with Kourlis, cussing--the keepers have pinned the blame for the bee die-offs on the chemical.

But have they busted the right suspect, or is the buzz based on nothing but panic? While the agriculture industry has become more and more dependent on science and technology, beekeeping remains a largely unchanged art, a highly independent avocation pursued by mavericks. Yet beekeeping is tied directly to farmers and their crops--a contradiction that has put many beekeepers on the defensive and desperate for answers.

"One of the skills that has helped beekeepers survive is being sort of independent fellows," says Marion Ellis, a well-known entomologist at the University of Nebraska. "They don't have a huge support network. It serves them well in most arenas. But in this instance, in the new chemical arena in agriculture, they need to look a little harder at the science."

On August 2, 1994, Tom Theobald received a phone call from a local crop sprayer warning him that a neighboring farmer was about to treat some fields with Penncap-M. It was unwelcome news.

Theobald is a giant, deliberate man with a tangle of graying hair and a thicket of white beard clinging to his face. His entrance into the world of beekeeping 22 years ago, he says, came as the result "of blind luck."

"I spent about ten years in the corporate world, working for IBM in human resources," he recalls. "The money was good, but it wasn't for me. So I decided to jump." With time on his hands, Theobald spent a lot of time puttering about his Niwot house and decided to acquire a couple of bee colonies to complement his garden.

One of Theobald's neighbors was an elderly man named Ted Johnson, who'd been a beekeeper from the 1920s until he retired. "He and his wife always talked about the life with a real reverence," Theobald remembers. Inspired, he tracked down the Longmont beekeeper Johnson had sold his hives to and offered to volunteer his labor in exchange for learning anything and everything about honey. Eventually, Theobald took over the man's business. And while he says keeping bees is no way to earn a living--he takes part-time jobs to make ends meet--he has never regretted the move.

"It's really a magnetic craft, a magic kingdom," he explains. "It's a unique window into the natural world. You see the seasons and how they're reflected through the eyes of the bees. It's like livestock, but gentler. Nothing is butchered or slaughtered. It can still be done by a single person; I work for myself."

Like many other beekeepers across the state, Theobald began noticing about five years ago that an unusual number of bees was dying during the slow winter months. Although beekeepers expect that a certain number of bees will die from various causes each year, the winters seemed to be getting deadlier.

As the keepers compared notes, many concluded that the cause of the bees' deaths was the pesticide Penncap-M, a recently revived chemical used mainly to control rootworm in corn. The pesticide had been developed just after World War II. Initially spread over fields by aerial applicators in a fine spray, by 1970 the chemical was being packaged in tiny capsules, which, when sprayed onto a field, worked like time-release medicines, protecting a farmer's crop over a longer period of time.

The active chemical in Penncap has always been deadly to bees: Since a rash of Penncap-related bee kills in the 1970s, the pesticide's warning label has specifically directed applicators not to spray it on blooming fields where bees are foraging. But the pesticide can kill bees more insidiously, too.

Penncap capsules are about the same size as pollen. Bees flying into fields gather up the encapsulated chemical along with pollen and return to the hive. There, the pesticide can wait like a time-bomb, slowly leaking out and poisoning a colony up to a year after it has been deposited.

So when Theobald learned that his neighbor was about to spray with the pesticide, he was less than pleased. Still, there wasn't much he could do. In the agriculture business, beekeepers are unique in that their livestock grazes on land they neither own nor rent; they are squatters on the edge of an industry.

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