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Hive mentality 

A mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder is decimating bee populations. So what?

It's the end of the world as we know it.

Bees are dying, and nobody knows why. The suspect list is as varied as it is speculative. Genetically modified food. Pesticides. Cell phones. Wi-Fi. Fungus. About the only theory not floating around is alien abduction.

click to enlarge SIDE BEE :  Honeybees have taken a lot of hits lately, and their numbers are dropping. Still, local experts say not to expect a food collapse or other dire consequences. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • SIDE BEE : Honeybees have taken a lot of hits lately, and their numbers are dropping. Still, local experts say not to expect a food collapse or other dire consequences.

# National media have sounded the alarm: Without these industrious little insects, our crops will wither and die, leaving the country nay, the world emaciated, starving for something other than fish and whatever measly fruits can pollinate themselves.

Of course, the mysterious "colony collapse disorder" (as the recent mass bee disappearances have been dubbed) could just be the inconvenient truth du jour. Remember avian flu? West Nile virus? And, oh yeah, that little thing called global warming?

Americans seem to need to have something to obsess about. If it's not terrorism, it's smallpox. Yesterday it was the ozone layer, marijuana, and gangs. Today, it's the ice caps, meth, and the death of bees.

 

So is it really the end of the world as we know it? Probably not. Bees really are dwindling, and their plight is furrowing brows across the county, state, and nation. Nobody besides some of the more excitable media is saying that the sky is falling. Yet. But at the same time, beekeepers are crossing their often-stung fingers and counting on the fact that their industry will go on as it always has: by adapting and surviving. And maybe getting a little meaner.

Going, going, gone
Anyone who hasn't been swarmed by bees wouldn't understand what really gets Tim Vaughn's blood pumping. The Oceano landscaper, who's kept bees on three continents, said that the experience is a practically indescribable thrill. Try to picture it: about 15,000 wild bees all searching for a home, filling the air with a deep hum and packing a punch that collectively makes them more dangerous than a mountain lion.

click to enlarge OUT AND ABOUT :  Tim Vaughn has seen his own hives dwindle, but has also reported an abundance of calls from people asking him to come take care of swarms on their property. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • OUT AND ABOUT : Tim Vaughn has seen his own hives dwindle, but has also reported an abundance of calls from people asking him to come take care of swarms on their property.

# Still, if you don't bother them, they don't bother you, Vaughn said, though he immediately added that there's no such rule the bees are obligated to follow. That's where the thrill comes in.

Vaughn has red hair and a graying beard. He's been keeping bees for about 14 years in the state, renting them or trading them out to farmers for pollination and collecting the resulting honey. He kept bees in South Africa and Papua New Guinea before coming here, so he's got a depth of experience in the field. He easily tosses around words like "parthenocarpic reproduction" when describing why citrus fruits can get along quite nicely without bees, but he also boils complex concepts down into what he calls "Tim logic" for easy explanations.

Take, for instance, the mystery of the missing bees. Vaughn lost about half of his hives this year. Usually he tries to put together about 50 hives to pollinate a client's almonds that's up to 30,000 bees per hive at this time of the year.

 

"This year, I scraped together 22 [hives]," he said.

Despite his own recent loss, Vaughn believes he'll recover quickly. He can repopulate his own hives with local bees he finds. Just because they're not as prevalent as they once were doesn't mean they're going extinct.

"There's going to be bees, but they're going to be meaner," Vaughn said. What does he mean? It turns out the media-hyped fear of this generation just might be saved by the media-hyped fear from an earlier one: Africanized bees are coming actually they're already here and they and their intermingled offspring are doing jobs left vacant by dying European bees.

Vaughn, like many beekeepers, has a trick up his sleeve to keep bees with more aggressive tendencies from dominating the hives. He regularly "re-queens" the hives he maintains, killing off the established leader in a sort of insect regicide and putting a gentler leader in her place to maintain order and stability. Right now, he's got about 70 hives, but expects to be up to 100 by the end of the year.

"And then I'll lose half of them," he said. "Or 70 percent of them."

click to enlarge TAKE A PEEK :  At their peak, a hive can be home to 50,000 bees, which pollinate almonds, avocados, and more locally. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • TAKE A PEEK : At their peak, a hive can be home to 50,000 bees, which pollinate almonds, avocados, and more locally.

# Post-mortems on affected hives like a CSI autopsy on wooden boxes dripping with honey reveal few or no bees left. So why aren't we seeing piles of dead bees everywhere? To explain his theory, Vaughn took a break from a recent landscaping job to plunk a red Coke can down on a frosted glass tabletop. The can represented an average hive. Bees range, he said, in a half-mile radius, so their territory can cover a circle with a mile diameter. He traced a line around the can with his finger, his nail dirt-stained from work, while mentally tallying up numbers and using pi to calculate figures. A beehive with 50,000 bees at the peak of summer is going to cover about 20,000 acres, he concluded.

"What's the chance that you're going to find three dead bees in an acre?" he said.

Observant pedestrians may see an occasional bee languishing on the sidewalk, but the bulk of the dying insects shrivel up and get eaten by ants or blown away, never to be seen again.

Bee death is nothing new. One UC Davis bee expert recently reported that a similar phenomenon to colony collapse disorder popped up in the late 1800s. Bee populations can rise and fall in cycles, and beekeepers naturally expect to lose some hives to attrition throughout the year, but it seems that it's particularly tough to be a bee these days.

For Apis mellifera the honeybee you see buzzing around your garden the hits just keep on coming. It's an entomological war zone out there, with mites and beetles attacking from the inside and out. Recent killer freezes decimated plant life around the state, and unusually dry months parched the pollen-providing blossoms and grasses that survived. Enemies are plentiful. Food is in shorter supply. The end result is that bees are leaving their hives and they're not coming back. To a world that's seen bee numbers drop from such recent plagues as the Varroa mite which latches on to a bee and thereby opens the door to a host of viruses, much like ticks do to humans any hit can be a big one.

click to enlarge ON THE MOVE :  Scott Jeffreys, Cal Polys head beekeeper, likens his profession to being a cowboy. Beekeepers have to be resourceful, creative, industrious, and think on their feet. He revitalized the schools bee program and maintains a shop where students can work on projects, like these boxes for mating queens. - PHOTO BY RYAN MILLER
  • PHOTO BY RYAN MILLER
  • ON THE MOVE : Scott Jeffreys, Cal Polys head beekeeper, likens his profession to being a cowboy. Beekeepers have to be resourceful, creative, industrious, and think on their feet. He revitalized the schools bee program and maintains a shop where students can work on projects, like these boxes for mating queens.

# "There's been a lot of hype," Vaughn conceded, "but at the same time, if you've got 5,000 bees and you wake up one morning and there's 2,000 boy."

Despite the recent bee decline, farmers aren't necessarily worrying about a mass extinction, but they are feeling the sting in their wallets.

Vaughn explained that a few years back, beekeepers used to rent out hives to growers for about $20 per hive per month. Three years ago, he said, the fee rose to an unbelievable $70. The next year, it jumped to $125.

"This year, people were getting $150 a hive," Vaughn said. "Nobody knows what the solution is going to be."

For some growers, the extra dollars are still worth it. Recent dispatches from the California Farm Bureau Federation's Food and Farm News reported that this year's expected almond crop is crushing any fears of sub-par pollination, with boughs bending under the weight of the plentiful nuts. Land devoted to almonds in the state has been on the rise, recently topping 700,000 acres.

In light of such monoculture orchards, Vaughn said that a national science organization recently opined that we've become overly reliant on one pollinator.

"That may be true," he noted, "but what are you going to do about it?"

Vaughn thinks that if bees do pull the ultimate vanishing act, the basic impact would be that some nut and melon crops would cost more at the supermarket, and squash would be a different shape. Really. A curved or straight squash has to do with how it's fertilized.

He did say that crops that rely on bees to produce seed would suffer. Still, California basically got along without them until the 1850s. Since then, farmers have come to rely on them more and more. Avocado growers, Vaughn said, never really had to use bees, but as they began focusing more on the Hass variety and saw a drop in natural pollination from feral bees because of the Varroa mite they realized that rented honeybees could potentially double their agricultural production.

Beekeepers from other states, already in California for the almond blossoming season, have been sticking around to work on avocados. And that's likely to continue, even if bee populations aren't what they used to be.

"I think long-term we've got it made here in San Luis because it's such an attractive place for bees," Vaughn said.

A county look
Rusty Hall used to spend a couple of weeks a year inspecting beehives for the San Luis Obispo County Department of Agriculture. The state provided funds so inspectors could search for specific diseases that could harm the industry. A vote in the late '90s sunsetted that funding, so now Hall's bee contact involves making sure beekeepers put their boxes in appropriate places not, for instance, in a park downtown or in the middle of a housing tract.

Every year, beekeepers travel to California because the state doesn't have enough pollinators of its own to handle the sudden burst of blooms. Left to their own devices, flies, beetles, and native bees like mason bees or leaf-cutters can't cut it.

"Not all insects are really specifically designed and do such a good job of pollination as the honeybee," Hall said.

He explained that honeybees arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1800s and have been buzzing around ever since until recently. He cited a study that showed how an estimated 90 percent of feral honeybee hives were wiped out when the Varroa mite was at its vicious best.

"I noticed it myself," he said. "Where'd all the bees go?"

There were, however, what Hall called "resistance colonies" out there, and in 2000 or so, he started seeing feral colonies again. Those bees which were technically once domesticated have been intermingling with the wilder, Africanized strain, and are moving in something of a genetic drift, Hall said, which may be cause for concern, but also helps with their survival.

As Vaughn pointed out, beekeepers do their share of work by metaphorically taming the bees down and keeping them gentle through re-queening. The result is crop-friendly hives that, by some estimates, add $15 billion to the nation's

agricultural output. And, again, it's the money that most worries industry insiders. A bee exodus would certainly make an economic impact.

"Will the world end? No, probably not," Hall said. "But the bees are important. They do contribute quite a bit to pollination.

"If you're an almond grower and you don't have enough bees out there at the right time, you're going to see a loss."

So far this year, Hall registered 15 beekeepers at 27 sites throughout the county. In his work, he hasn't personally seen any first-hand effects of colony collapse disorder, but he's been following media reports much as has the rest of the country.

He also joins others in the industry in grimly listing all of the challenges facing bees these days, including tracheal mites and hive beetles. And those threats just add to the everyday maintenance bees require. Hall compared keeping bees to keeping a pet: You have to make sure they're not too hot, not too cold, and that they have enough food and water.

Get an education
The California Farm Bureau Federation announced that recent bee troubles have prompted UC Davis to revitalize its bee research program by renovating its bee biology lab and hiring a "respected bee-breeding expert." Closer to home, San Luis Obispo has already seen a sort of bee renaissance of its own.

Scott Jeffreys is the man of the hour. Cal Poly's head beekeeper has been fielding requests for interviews right and left, getting up early to toss out sound bites for TV and convincing photographers that he doesn't need to suit up in an elaborate white outfit for a shoot.

About 30 years ago, Jeffreys built beehives in a wooden building on campus as a crop science major. After graduating in 1980 and working as a bee professional for years including breeding queens in Hawaii he returned with some hives of his own to teach at his alma mater around the turn of the millennium. He found that same wooden building he worked in years before, now dilapidated and inhabited by homeless people.

These days, the paint is still peeling and there's some graffiti on a wall or two, but Jeffreys has breathed new life into the shop. He rustled up scrap wood and put screens over the windows to keep students from winging rocks through the glass. He obviously loves his profession, and pours himself into everything from scouring swap meets for usable materials to handling heavy machinery.

"You know what I dig about this bee thing?" he said, grinning from the driver's seat of a Bobcat forklift before a recent class. "It is real."

Students walk or bike down a dirt road off of Highland to get to the shop. They cross a shallow creek meandering through a shady grove and round a corner to a lemon orchard. Bees fill the air and cluster on stacked white boxes at one end of the building. The air smells like honey and sawdust.

Jeffreys enlists his students to help construct boxes for breeding queens, wood frames, and other beekeeping hardware. Finding materials would be easier, he said, if beekeeping was more of a commercial enterprise with big financial backers.

"The bee industry just isn't that way. It's more " He trailed off, searching for the right words. "Beekeepers are just kind of what would you say? They're kind of like cowboys.

"Beekeeping is always trying to do it cheap," he added. "Do as much as you can for as little as possible."

Jeffreys has taken that little and turned it into a lot. His Honeybee Project turns a profit, and participating students get paid for their work through honey and candle sales and more. That might have something to do with why he's seen his biggest class yet this quarter: 36 students.

"It's a beast of a class," he said. "In the fall, usually I'm lucky to get 15."

But while class sizes are growing, the bee population is shrinking, courtesy of those infamous Varroa mites and whatever's happening now. Jeffreys used to work with about 150 hives. Now he's down to about 60. At the project's peak, he couldn't keep enough materials in the shop. Boxes were scarce. Now, he has a hard time keeping the rats, mice, and moths from gnawing and eating the materials and equipment he stores in the building.

Jeffreys is far from predicting a coming apocalypse. Still, he can't deny that his bees that survived mite troubles just don't seem to have the same oomph as they used to. This year was a grim year for bees, he pointed out.

"They're used to a really humpin' spring," he said. "Dry years are characteristically crappy years for bees."

In and around all of the difficulties and setbacks, Jeffreys has been working to make the project sustainable, and they don't use any chemicals, so he's waiting to see how his hives fare in the long run. As for the large-scale threat of colony collapse disorder, he theorized that someone will eventually discover it was due to some chemical maybe a systemic pesticide and life will go on.

In the meantime, his students have obviously picked up on the hype. At a recent class, one or two brought up the mysterious bee deaths. One student had seen him on TV earlier in the day, talking about the subject.

It could be worse. Nobody could be paying attention to bees, or all of the hype could be negative, as in the case of Africanized swarms.

"The bee industry needs a positive shot," Jeffreys said, adding that all of this recent attention hyped or not certainly helps.

Editor Ryan Miller can be reached at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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