The Buzz Stops Here

On June 29 the state commissioner of agriculture, Thomas Kourlis, traveled to Salida to address the Colorado Beekeepers Association. The beekeepers consider themselves an underappreciated group, the overlooked child of Colorado agriculture, and this was the first time the government's top farm official was paying them close personal attention. They had hive hopes.

Lyle Johnston, the lanky, slow-speaking president of the association, recalls feeling optimistic. For the past several years, Colorado's bees have been mysteriously dying at an extraordinary rate. To Johnston, a third-generation beekeeper in Rocky Ford, Kourlis's attendance at the biannual meeting was a welcome sign that the state recognized the beekeepers' pain.

"He was coming in and trying to show his concern for the bee industry, and he said he'd be trying to get to the bottom of the problem," Johnston remembers. "Now, I'm no fan of any political deal, but that's the first time any commissioner attended a bee meeting, so I gotta give the guy credit. Besides, it was a Saturday, and he came on his own time."

The feel-good moment was not destined to last. The warmth disappeared almost immediately after "Kourlis called us 'assholes,'" says Paul Hendricks, editor of the beekeepers association newsletter and co-director of the American Honey Producers.

"I would characterize it this way," Hendricks continues. "A lot of us had buckshot in our questions, because of the way the ag department has been handling our problems. There were no softball questions. I asked two questions, and then on the third question Kourlis just blew his top. He said, 'You're sticking your finger down my throat, and I'm going to stick my finger down your throat--asshole.' He used the word. Then he generalized it: Something like, 'Maybe you're all assholes.'

"I've been called worse," Hendricks concludes, a little proud. "But never by anyone that high in government."

"It was a clearing of the air," recalls Kourlis, who denies swearing at Hendricks. "I wanted to show them that they were attacking the people trying to help them the most. I thought it was inappropriate to go out and make accusations against the department that are completely untrue just to provoke a reaction. I wanted [Hendricks] to know that if you think you can get in the department's face without me getting back in your face, I'm not going to allow that to happen."

Johnston agrees that's a pretty fair summation. "The commissioner and Paul had...different words," he says. "They just didn't hit it off. What Mr. Kourlis might have suggested was that 'if you guys are going to be assholes, then I can be an asshole, too.'"

That label may be about the only thing beekeepers and ag officials have in common lately.

For an understanding of what is making beekeepers so ornery, you need only travel southeast of Denver to the honey business of a man named Miles County. He didn't always keep his hives in Lincoln and Elbert counties; up until two years ago he had a thriving bee farm in Logan County.

In late 1995 Miles County prepared his 322 hives on the outskirts of Sterling for winter. By March 1996, 298 of the colonies were wiped out, the bees nothing but dried-up husks. Imagine a cattle rancher losing 92 out of 100 cows to disease or predators, he says, and you begin to get the idea.

"I just went out on a nice day to check the hives and you start opening up beehives and you find them all dead," he recalls in a monotone. "And you go from one yard to the next and they're all dead." After that County moved his hives south, where he's since built his business back to about 200 colonies.

County isn't suffering alone. Bees are dying across Colorado. In 1995, the state's honey growers maintained 45,000 hives. Last year the number plummeted to 30,000--a drop of one-third. It was the equivalent of all the land used to grow winter wheat in Washington, Kit Carson, Logan and Weld counties--which together account for one million of the state's three million winter wheat acres--suddenly disappearing.

Although hives are withering around the country--wild bees have just about vanished--the decimation of Colorado's domesticated stock is unprecedented.

Last year, says Frank Peairs, an entomologist at Colorado State University, the country's bee industry lost a total of 82,000 hives; 15,000 of those were in Colorado. The state's losses account for almost 20 percent of the country's entire bee kill, yet Colorado's keepers have less than 1 percent of the country's hives. "It has been a real wake-up call," Peairs says.

In any industry a mystery with such devastating consequences would produce speedy government action, and the state agriculture department says it is moving as quickly as it can to figure out what is causing the mass die-offs of Colorado honeybees. Late last year it arranged for entomologists and other experts to speak at a series of informational meetings across the state. And this past spring the department, along with CSU, began a broad study to find the reason for the bees' demise; the earliest results are expected in January.