America’s Bee Problem

America’s Bee Problem Is an Us Problem

You may have heard America’s honeybees are dying. But what does that mean for the people on the front lines—and what could it mean for what ends up on your plate?

By Lex Pryor

Ringer illustration

“There’s probably bees all over. Inside the truck, outside the truck,” he says, eyes scanning the dim country road ahead. “You’re just as liable to get stung in here as you are outside.”

Crawford is a bee man. More than once, he refers to what we’re doing—driving a load of 80 honeybee colonies from western Massachusetts to a wild blueberry farm in central New Hampshire—as “haulin’ bees.” He is active behind the wheel, but he is not gung-ho. When the road bends, he slows down. On the highway he drives the speed limit.

“One thing that’s different haulin’ bees,” he cautions, “you got a higher center of gravity, so you don’t really want to take too tight of turns.”

The truck is a white Ford F-150 with the printed image of a smiling, anthropomorphic bee on the side and more than 171,000 miles on the odometer. The floors are coated in dried mud. Crawford drinks a Cherry Coke and owns both a flip phone and iPad.

He transports his bees at night so that none of them flutter away. They fly only in the daylight, but Crawford still covers the entire load with one big plastic tarp, fastening it with wooden planks and cargo straps. They are stored for most of the year in one of his beeyards near Springfield. When Crawford readies the bees for transport, it looks like some brand of outlandish NASA training: He and his staff, clad in full, graying bee suits, stack hives that resemble office cabinets from a forklift amid a cloud of soothing smoke and darting yellow fuzz.

He considers the North American black bear to be his sworn enemy. Each of his bee hubs is surrounded by electric fences. In total, Crawford owns around 3,200 colonies, equivalent to upward of 150 million bees. He is one of thousands of commercial migratory beekeepers in the United States. They are the phantom backbone of our agricultural system: The bees pollinate the crops; the beekeepers shuttle them from field to field, coast to coast.

They directly contribute to a third of America’s food: apples, peaches, lettuce, squashes, melons, broccoli, cranberries, tree nuts, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, plums, clementines, tangerines, sunflowers, pumpkins, alfalfa for your beef, and guar for your processed foods. Ninety-eight percent of organic vitamin C sources, 70 percent of vitamin A, and 74 percent of lipids; $17 billion worth of crops annually from honeybee pollination alone. The demand for their services has tripled in the past 50 years and shows no signs of abating.

The problem is they die. You have probably heard this. The number of colonies in the U.S.—2.7 million—is less than half what it was at the midpoint of the 20th century, and it has remained flat since the early 2000s. Virtually every year for the past two decades, U.S. beekeepers are tasked with replacing the third or more of their stock that perish after pollinating the very crops that required the bees in the first place. It is a shell game with titanic stakes. (In other words, it’s very American.) It works how it works because we made it to. This you may not have heard.

The bee-industrial complex is a quagmire linked to antiquity and the modern world. People have harnessed bees for about as long as they’ve harnessed anything at all. They are mentioned in the ancient cuneiform writings of Sumeria and Babylonia. They were domesticated for the Egyptian pharaohs by 2400 BCE. Early Roman naturalists recorded witnessing villages in northern Italy where “they place their hives on ships and take them during the night about five miles up the river” to access new fields of flowers.

“That Christmas puppy syndrome happens with honeybees. And there’s not much I can do about it other than try to impress upon the people who take my class that it is a responsibility.” —Andrew Coté

More than one classical dignitary died abroad and had their bodies preserved in nothing but honey: Agesilaus of Sparta, the philosopher Democritus, Alexander the Great. The Greeks and Romans valued some wild honeys as potential cures for madness. In Europe bees were lobbed on the battlefield at Swedish knights by English infantry. During World War I the Germans rigged trenches with them.

The downward spiral in America began at the beginning of the 20th century, when agriculture started to consolidate and commercialize around the country. Growers increasingly scoured the landscape for potential boosts in efficiency. They noticed that where the honeybee went, higher yields always seemed to follow. “An insufficient supply of bees will hinder the setting of fruit,” read one Kansas farming bulletin in 1899. Spurred by advancements in interstate travel, pollination services soon went mobile. As cultivation continued to bend toward monocrop harvests, the honeybee’s position in the American farming structure was solidified.

That’s when the dying started. Honeybee stocks were decimated in the 1920s and then the 1960s and once more in the 1980s and ’90s. The number of managed colonies had already been slowly eroding for half a century when the bottom fell out in the mid-aughts. Beekeepers went away for vacation and returned to depleted hives. Entire apiaries collapsed in the span of weeks.

This last part is the one that’s most familiar in the public mind—the picture we have been taught to care about, mostly in an environmental sense. “Save the bees,” you will hear, at ice cream shops and farmers markets. A study touting the latest death rates will go viral, and pollinator protection bills will buzz out of state legislatures in response. This is also precisely where the quagmire is at its deepest, where the lines between truth, misconception, and misdirection blur.

The problem of bees in America is not a question of peace with the environment. It’s not really even a matter of conservation, per se. The bees most folks believe ought to be saved are neither natural to the land nor essential to it. They are, instead, integral to our agricultural system, grocery stores, refrigerators, and pantries. We have built a machine in the span of centuries, and it fits so comfortably together. How and why this happened is a story as much about the appeal, adaptability, and shortcomings of American commerce as it is about the dying of bees.

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