Hive Anxiety

In Lyle Johnston's lone beehive, a drowsy clump of bees staggers across a plastic honeycomb frame. They are in a semi-dormant state, more concerned with survival than with honey or the current queen. A warm, un-wintery buzz hums from the hive, which sits near a grove of old cottonwoods at Johnston Honey Farms in Rocky Ford. The nearby warehouse is full of metal drums, each holding 650 gallons of honey. But now it is the off-season, and Lyle Johnston misses his bees.

"I put most of them in semi trucks and send them off to pollinate the California almond crop," he says, a little dispiritedly. By now, Johnston's 4,000 hives (not counting the one sitting back home by the cottonwoods) are strung out across hundreds of acres of almond orchard near Merced, California. Next month, when the trees begin to blossom, the Johnston bees, having settled in, will go to work.

One of the many things Johnston admires about bees is their work ethic.
"They are like tiny little athletes," he says, "and my job is to train them, to see what they can produce. They are far sharper than human beings. You can move their hive--you can move it a thousand miles away--and it still takes them only a few hours to get their bearings. And they are magnificent housekeepers. The cleanest creatures on earth. California," he adds, with a touch of pride, "is 100 percent dependent on my bees."

Agriculture types estimate that California almond growers need about a million bees to pollinate their crop each year--but only 250,000 native California bees are available to do the job. The other 750,000--arguably the most skilled migrant labor force on earth--come from Colorado. "And Utah, Florida, Idaho, the Dakotas, all over," Johnston says. "There is no competition. They need all the bees they can get."

Honeybees have a long and noble history. They are thought to have arrived in America shortly after the Mayflower, brought over by Europeans who recognized their importance not just in pollinating crops, but in making honey and candles. Native Americans, whose own crops were pollinated by such disparate forces as the wind and the daddy longlegs, reportedly called bees "the white man's bird" and considered the insects a sign of encroaching whiteness.

Bees adapted well to America. As beekeepers spread, bees went with them, each hive dividing every spring until wild (or feral) hives were everywhere. At the start of the twentieth century, when beekeeping was as widespread as it would ever be, the notion of transporting bees across state lines because of regional shortages would have been unthinkable.

As unthinkable as the idea that wild hives could approach extinction.
"Chemicals started it," Johnston explains. "They wiped out a whole lot of bees with pesticides." Then, in the early Eighties, a series of mites and viruses moved in on what was left of American bees, domestic and otherwise. "Two-thirds of the commercial bee operations in Rocky Ford failed in the late Eighties because of the Asian viruses," Johnston says. "And the wild hives were decimated. I used to find them out in the country all the time. Now I haven't seen one in years."

This is disturbing to Johnston--not just because of the dire environmental consequences, but also because the fascination with bees he developed as a child has never abated. A third-generation beekeeper, he grew up around his grandfather's 800 Fort Lupton hives and has enjoyed unraveling the complicated biology of bees ever since. "Think of this," he offers. "A bee sucks on a petal, draws out nectar, goes back to the hive and throws it up. I don't know if you'd want to put it this way, but honey is basically the throw-up of bees."

The unlikely side effect of the bee viruses is that a guy like Johnston, who assumed he would continue on as a small-time beekeeper, is now a bee baron. Not only do his bees work out of state all winter, but they are also in great demand at home, where the same melon and cucumber farmers who once decimated the insects with pesticides now beg Johnston to place his hives in their fields. "Actually, they were desperate for bees around here last year," Johnston says, "which shows you how bad it is."

As a result, Johnston has been far busier than his beekeeping forebears ever were. "I live like a hobo out of my truck in California three months out of the year," he says. "I'm forty years old, but my body is older from lifting all the hives. Nothing about this business is hydraulic. You need a linebacker mentality to get stung all day. But the thing is, I love to be stung. Truthfully, I just feel better if I have fifty to a hundred stings a day. Actually," he adds, "it's not bees that will kill you. It's teenagers."