Bees are Literally Worrying Themselves to Death
This is an extremely important article, long but full of metaphysics, the study of first cause. Take the time, and if you dont have time, just read the text in bold and/or blue.
The American honeybee is in peril, you might have heard, if you are the sort of person who likes a ghost story. In the last year, beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies, another peak in a string of mass die-offs on the scale of plagues: In the last five years, die-offs have hit 34 percent, 46 percent, 29 percent, and 36 percent. That’s more than one in every three colonies each year — whole impeccably networked societies, as big as small cities. In many areas, the figures were worse, and it was hard not to wonder how a species in crisis could possibly sustain annual regional losses as high as 60 percent without fast approaching extinction. “What are we doing on bees?” the president has been said to interject at the end of Oval Office meetings. “Are we doing enough?”
It’s been a long decade for bees. We’ve been panicking about them nonstop since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. American beekeepers had experienced dramatic die-offs before, as recently as the previous winter in California and in regular bouts with a deadly bug called the varroa mite since the 1980s. But those die-offs would at least produce bodies pathologists could study. Here, the bees had just disappeared. In the U.K., they called it Mary Celeste syndrome, after the merchant ship discovered off the Azores in 1872 with not a single passenger aboard. The bees hadn’t even scrawled CROATOAN in honey on the door on their way out of the hive.
Hackenberg is 66, a self-described farm boy, and not just the public face but the Edward Snowden of bee death — an avid yawpy monologuist with a long Freeman Dyson nose who runs a one-man ad hoc bee-advocacy speakers circuit (Sierra Clubs, farmers associations, Katie Couric). I’d come to find him in Maine, where he was working for a couple of weeks helping to manage someone else’s bees.
Sitting in the farm office, he told me about what happened in 2006. “It’s kind of an airy, breezy day — 70-some degrees, but there’s no bees flying. There’s something wrong here. Nobody sticking their heads out the door. I started jerking covers, and then I was really jerking covers — I mean, I’m going right down the line pulling covers up and there’s nobody home. I’m so stunned I can’t even talk. I’m on my hands and knees crawling around looking for dead bees in among the stones, and there wasn’t any. I mean, there was no dead bees. Three weeks ago, these bees are fine,” he says. Now? “You got a murder scene, and nobody knows what happened. There are no weapons, there are no corpses.
“I have a son in the moviemaking business in Philadelphia,” he continues. “He calls me up one morning early, and he says, ‘Dad, they’re talking about you on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.’ I said, ‘About what?’ He said, ‘You know, this mysterious disease, the bees — they’re calling it colony-collapse disorder and saying you’re the guy that discovered this.’ Well, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Soon they were calling it “bee rapture.” A recent New York Times “Retro Report” is a pretty good time capsule of the frenzy. Fox News: “Bees are mysteriously dying.” CNN: “Missing bee mystery.” “The end of honeybees, the end of pollination, a dire threat to crops the world over,” said one broadcaster. “This might be one of the most interesting, puzzling, and disturbing stories to come along in a long time,” said Brian Williams, who turned out to have been right in this case.
At the moment, via Netflix, you can watch Silence of the Bees and Vanishing of the Bees. There are also more recent documentary entries in the bee-panic canon, like Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? Last week, the Orion Book Award was given to The Bees, by Laline Paull, a novel set entirely inside a hive. Even the lepidopterist Nabokov didn’t manage a novel about butterflies. Which, by the way, are dying off too — monarchs in particular, 90 percent of them dead already. Have you heard we’re living through a mass-extinction event?
The reports of bee death were especially distressing for what they seemed to portend: climate-change disaster. There was the feeling that this was a sort of environmental early-warning alarm — an intuition, many bee lovers point out, that draws on literally millennia of old-world mythology of bees as seers. The president was one of those who entertained the bee prophecy. As Obama adviser John P. Holdren told the Washington Post, the president was worried about what he called the “canary in the coal mine” phenomenon, at a time when the biosphere seems on the verge of spinning out of control: “If honeybee colonies are collapsing for a reason we don’t understand, what is that telling us?”
There was also a practical issue — a major one. Literally, you couldn’t eat without bees; certainly you couldn’t listen to any coverage of colony collapse without being told that honeybees were responsible, through pollination, for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you ate. One out of three.
But the response was more visceral than abstract, because people tend to see themselves in bees. That is, when they aren’t being stung by them or waving them faux-nonchalantly away from their heads or sometimes killing them by stomping on them, especially in the pre-prefrontal-cortex tween years. “Most people hate insects all the time. And yet the bees — the honeybee and the bumblebee people absolutely love,” says Aussie entomologist Andrew Barron. Bee people even have an alternate theory of urban beekeeping, not as a hipster outgrowth of the woodsman beard but as a genuine outpouring of love. “It just chimes with people — that these stories of bee declines are a symptom of something broader that’s wrong with the world,” says the British bumblebee specialist Dave Goulson (also the author of the delightful memoir A Buzz in the Meadow). “They think, if we can save the bees, we can save the world.”
Forgetting the world, though, it’s hard not to want to save the bees. Some facts: They help each other navigate using vibrations in the air and, without any appreciable brain capacity, can memorize landscape features, allowing them to range 20 square miles without getting lost. They are the only insects endowed with symbolic language — in fact the only animals other than humans whose conversations would please Saussure.
When they are not communicating through pheromones, they do it through an elaborate system of dances, namely, the “round dance” and the “waggle dance,” a figure-eight maneuver of at least a hundred circuits that incorporates the changing angle of the sun and allows bees to describe the precise distance and direction to a location of interest, usually a pollen site, water source, or new hive, though the dance can also be used to choreograph a defensive swarm. Since these dances are not just declarations of fact but also express intensity of feeling, a pair of political scientists in England recently suggested they are really a form of “quadratic voting,” a superior political model that, they acknowledged, real-world humans had not yet achieved. Of course, a honeybee colony is not a democracy; very noticeably it is also not a patriarchy. In addition to its queen, who personally picks the gender of each of her many thousands of offspring, all the workers in a colony are women; its men are called drones and immediately die upon mating, which they do only with queens of other colonies, since queens simply do not mate with their subjects. They prefer sex tourism in other hives.
It’s natural, so to speak, to anthropomorphize animals — our whole animation industry is built on it, for starters. But there is something strange, even fatalistic, about such vain beings as we are identifying this strongly with creatures who operate so entirely without free will and individual autonomy that many experts in the field aren’t sure whether we should think of the bee as the organism or the colony. Like anthills, termite mounds, and wasp nests, honeybee colonies are sometimes called “superorganisms,” complex societies operating so efficiently and precisely they resemble a self-conscious intelligence. Bee lovers kept telling me it was an appreciation for the great spectacle of bee civilization that was behind this outpouring of concern for their well-being. But I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t almost the opposite quality that gave colony collapse the force of fable: the complete powerlessness of individuals facing down inevitable, civilization-scale suicide. It’s not just bee rapture, after all: We see visions of our own world being wiped out in the mysterious death of saiga antelopes; in Ebola, bird flu, and other pandemics; in anxiety about a robot apocalypse; in ISIS, China, and the Jade Helm military takeover of Texas; in runaway inflation that isn’t actually happening or the gold rush it spawned, which did; in even the truly biblical vision, common on the environmental left, of near-term annihilation by climate change.
One does not open the Wikipedia page for “Honeybee” expecting an encounter with millenarianism. But the more you read about colony collapse, the more you are filled with a kind of awe for just how much the internet is a divining rod by which we choose to intuit an end of days. And for just how comforting, and affirming, this sort of apocalyptic vision must be that we put it to such diverse use.
In the case of bees, the archenemy of the apocalyptic narrative seems to be (surprise!) modernity, in one form or another: changes in the Earth’s magnetic field; as-yet-invisible effects of climate change; GMO crops, corn especially; bees blinded by UV light; wireless internet; bees disoriented by cell-phone transmissions or even cordless-phone signals (a reminder that conspiracy theorists often live in other eras, apparently with base transmitters boasting enviable range); jet contrails, jet chemtrails (which are different, though both theories are insane); the aforementioned bee rapture; a Soviet mind-control project. One interviewer suggested his own theory to entomologist hero May Berenbaum, who last year received a National Medal of Science:
“Honeybees know something we don’t know and they’re getting out.” She responded, “I like the theory that visitors from another planet have decided they were going to abduct the smartest organisms on the planet, and they’ve picked the honeybees.” The number and sheer interchangeability of these theories, both serious and semi-serious, were astounding — each a tentpole pointing in one direction or another but holding aloft bee death as a great public mystery. It was almost like we were more interested in propping up the mystery than in solving it.
But that’s not the whole story — or even the real story. In fact, the science of bee death is significantly more straightforward. There are two primary, if a bit humdrum, culprits: the varroa mite, particularly a pesticide-resistant strain, and pesticides themselves, especially a new class of “sublethal neonicotinoids,” which do not kill pests but turn them into cigarette fiends, narcotized into irrelevance (hence the doc Nicotine Bees). There are also, the careful scientists are at pains to point out, a host of lesser factors: other diseases, loss of forage land to development, and the average honeybee’s bonkers diet (basically a bee version of what’s known online as “mono-ing,” where you eat only bananas for a month).
The trouble, for years, was that none of the conventional explanations could sufficiently explain the phenomenon — even added together, the factors couldn’t explain it. And then, this spring, some news. In a reviewpublished in Science, a team led by Goulson found that multiplying the effects held the key. Exposure to pesticides seemed to deepen bee vulnerability to varroa, for instance, and vice versa; bad diet seemed to be making each of the others worse, too. Used to be, a hive could repel varroa so long as an infestation didn’t claim 20 percent of the bees; now the threshold is down to 3 percent. And while in lab studies these sublethal pesticides didn’t kill bees, out in the field, the effects seemed much worse. The common element with each factor was stress on the bee.
So what we were seeing with bee death, the authors wrote, was stress synergy — stresses piggybacking on one another, the way that stresses do.
In a second paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Barron and three other scientists mapped exactly how stress eats away at a colony, individual panicked bee by individual panicked bee. It was making baby bees strike out from the hive to forage earlier and earlier. Unfortunately, young bees are terrible at foraging, and the result is “disastrous,” Barron explains. “A beehive is a fortress and a phenomenally self-regulating and ordered society and is probably moving from a state of complete function and order to complete depopulation in a couple of weeks. Sometimes even faster.
All of a sudden, the colony nose-dives and goes into a complete societal breakdown.” The superorganism has a panic attack. The bees freak the fuck out.
Don’t laugh, but looked at one way, this is essentially a case of on-the-job stress. That’s because the bees in question are worker bees, the tiniest employees of our agricultural-industrial complex. More than our doubles, bees are our slaves. Migrant workers, anyway. A pound of clover honey, the most common kind, represents the nectar from 8.7 million flowers, which gives some indication of just how hard they work for us. But honey is the least of the labor. Remember, they are pollinating one in three mouthfuls of our food. In terms of agricultural value, their work as pollinators ranks bees between chickens and pigs.
Pollination sounds sweet, but the process is not natural in the way we might like to think: bees happily flitting about the countryside from one plant to the next. Honeybees are not even native to North America. They were brought here to work, then bred to work more; first to make honey, then, beginning about 50 years ago, to pollinate our crops. They live, almost exclusively, in what are called managed colonies, in hives we’ve built for them so that we might transport them around the country to industrial farms that need them for pollination. Really, they are livestock. This is the answer to the riddle of how honeybees have survived mass die-offs each year: Their population has been kept steady by an industrial-farming infrastructure that requires their labor and can extract a few extra cents from consumers to support beekeepers’ rebreeding efforts. A single queen, which costs $15 to $35 and is absurdly fertile, can generate a whole colony in a single season, which she is constantly doing anyway, every year, because nobody in the colony but her survives more than a few weeks — that’s just the life cycle of workers and drones. In the case of the die-offs, everyone dies at once — including the queen. This happens to one in three colonies every year now, but thanks to rebreeding the bee population is actually steady.
When Dave Hackenberg founded his apiary, pollinating crops was a side gig for a small slice of honey farmers. But he was present at the birth of a whole new American industry. Hackenberg grew up on a dairy farm in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, four miles from where he lives now. He hated milking cows. He mail-ordered a package of bees as a teenager, getting a small loan from the Future Farmers of America and building up a proper apiary from 15 or 20 hives to 455 by the time he left high school; when he talks about making good on the loan, he tears up: “I walked the streets of Lewisburg, peddled honey, and I raised the money to pay that payment.”
Hackenberg Apiaries is now a few thousand hives strong; Dave’s friend Bret Adee has 80,000. Today, between 90 and 95 percent of American honeybees are managed by large-scale beekeepers who make their money from pollination contracts with industrial farms, trucking their bees in an endless circuit around the country, seeking out places needing bee labor and unleashing their broods upon the fields in massive insect-flower cross-species orgies. Pollen, in case you didn’t know, is the male part of the plant, which means you have been sneezing out a lot of sunflower semen this allergy season. (In case you’d like to be even more grossed out, consider the phrase “pollen tsunami.”) These farms might as well be parking lots for how much natural biodiversity they have, which is exactly why the bees are needed — such precisely managed monocultures have no native pollinators. Bee death can’t be a sign of the end of the natural world, because these days, bees come into almost no contact with an actually natural environment. Or, wait …
From site to site, the bees travel in waist-high, movable-comb hives, of which each contains anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 bees. The hives sit four to a pallet, typically stacked two pallets wide, three pallets high, and 17 pallets deep — on an 18-wheeler flatbed truck. A full semi load is about 400 hives, and the load as a whole is wrapped in netting for transit, then unwrapped and unloaded by forklift at each farm, a few hives per acre, ideally in the early morning or late at night, before the heat begins to agitate the bees. The guys trucking them in seem to always be dealing with some mechanical problem or other, but that’s not because the trucks break down more, one beekeeper told me; it’s just that it’s hard to find a mechanic willing to crawl under a truck of hot, angry bees on I-80.
When we talk about bee death, or colony collapse, these are the bees we are talking about — industrial honeybees, trucker honeybees. Bees in managed colonies — that’s truly the whole thing.
n addition to honeybees, there are wild bees, more than 4,000 species in the United States, but the epidemic of bee death has nothing to do with them; as a White House report put it, “little is known about trends for populations of non-managed bees that comprise the majority of pollinators.” Our bee-loss numbers do not count them, and our bee anxiety does not, therefore, reflect them. Bee Informed Partnership, the cheerily named alliance of beekeepers and entomologists who monitor annual bee loss, does not even bother to track those bees. How could it? These are not white rhinos, of which there are five. These are bees.
We do know some things about how wild bees are doing from studying them in small samples. We know that, although some species are struggling somewhat, overall, “certainly feral bee colonies are doing fairly well,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, probably the leading academic studying bee death and the ringleader of BeeInformed. We also know that, elsewhere in the world, bee death tracks fairly neatly with industrial farming, migratory pollination, and other innovations those advances introduce. We also know that colony-collapse disorder, the thing that kicked off bee panic in the first place, isn’t actually even happening anymore. VanEngelsdorp hasn’t seen it in four years at least. To hear Hackenberg tell it, that’s because beekeepers have wised up, keeping a close eye on their bees and feeding them steroidlike protein patties to fortify them. As a result, we’re just getting regular old corpse-producing bee death among those pollinators being bused around America’s farmland like an industrial-farming-era chain gang.
The travel circuit is punishing: almond farms, apple farms, pear farms, plum farms, and cherry farms in California, Oregon, and Washington; the Dakotas for alfalfa, clover, and sunflowers; cranberry bogs in Wisconsin; blueberries in Michigan, Maine, and Florida, which also requires bees for tupelos, gallberries, citrus fruits, and Brazilian pepper flowers; in Texas, there’s watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and pumpkins, which also grow on farms in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, where bees are needed for apples, cherries, and cranberries. Each of these stops lasts two or three weeks, and while it’d be difficult for a single beekeeper to hit all of them, the different growing seasons mean it’d be a waste to not hit as many as you can.
“It’s a very unnatural thing for a honeybee to be locked up and shipped in a lorry from Florida to Maine and back again each year,” says Goulson. “That must stress them out.
And it means they’re being given a very odd diet. For a month, they have nothing to eat but almond-blossom pollen and nectar, and then they’re taken to Maine for the blueberry, and then citrus in Florida. It’s a bit like if you had nothing to eat but chocolate and the next month you had nothing to eat but potatoes. You’d probably be pretty unhealthy.” Then there are the pesticides all those crops have been perfumed with. And those the beekeepers lace their hives with to protect against varroa — insecticides a number of bee people described as like chemotherapy. Bees are insects, too, of course, and a recent survey found three insecticides in the average colony; 80 percent of them contained at least one.
The central event in the bees’ cross-country tour is the visit to the almond farms of central California — that spectacle of industrial farming that is among the villains of the epic drought.
At present, there are roughly 2.7 million managed bee colonies in the United States, and each year, in February, more than 1.6 million of them are brought to the Central Valley to pollinate almond trees, which have only a five-day pollination window. That’s 30 billion bees, arriving on flatbed trucks and breathing in road fumes, to attend to 90 million trees. By the end of the visit, the bees will have eaten almost nothing but almond blossom for close to a month and will have helped produce 700 billion almonds, between 50 and 80 percent of the global supply. Their own population is said to nearly triple to 80 billion. This isn’t the beehive under the front porch, or the adorable amateur beekeeper playing in his backyard like a fencer gone native. This is major agribusiness. And in this context, colony collapse seems less like an environmental ghost story than an indictment of working conditions. A protest, even. The bees are stressed, sure. Wouldn’t you be?
But what needed fixing exactly? “I just don’t think we’re worried about honeybees going extinct,” says vanEngelsdorp. “But I think I am worried about commercial beekeepers going extinct. They’re hurting — losing 50 percent of their colonies every year, you’re going to be hurting. A lot of these are family businesses. They’re not doing this because it makes economic sense anymore. They’re doing it because of love.” Love for bees, that is. “I don’t know how long you can keep a family fed on love.
For Hackenberg, pollination season comes to an end in May, when he typically comes to the central coast of Maine before taking his bees north near the St. Lawrence River to summer and be harvested for honey. This is the Maine of Blueberries for Sal, though these days the state’s berries are produced almost entirely by two large farms, Wyman’s and Cherryfield Foods, which sit next to each other three hours or so northeast of Portland and even share some beekeepers this time of year. At the Portland airport, the woman behind the rental-car counter asked what brought me to Maine. Bees, I said, thinking I’d puzzle her. “Oh, because they’re dying,” she said. There wasn’t even a question mark.
When I met Hackenberg, in the Wyman’s farm office, he was wearing bright-blue jeans, a Wrangler button-down, and cowboy boots. He had a square brass belt buckle carved with a large cartoonlike bee and a beehive. He was missing part of one ring finger. He had small flesh-tone hearing aids he kept adjusting and a Hackenberg Apiaries camouflage baseball cap he’d shift off his head and back on again. “They call me Mr. Hackenberg,” he said, extending a hand to shake, sideways, underneath his other arm and winking at the other men in the room, who all called him Dave.
Hackenberg isn’t the biggest of the beekeepers — he keeps talking about his friend David Mendes, who just sold his 20,000 hives for millions and millions to an industrial operation called Paramount Farms, which is hoping to solve the bee-shortage problem by taking pollination in-house. But he is something like the beekeepers’ godfather, connected to everyone in the business in one way or another. He also operates his own trucking business, and peddles honey, beeswax, those protein patties and also “essential oil patties,” in addition to traveling the pollination circuit doing what he calls “running bees.” As the former head of the American Beekeeping Federation, he is also, in Washington, a legitimate power broker and sometime lobbyist, regularly meeting with the USDA and the EPA, which know him well, as do the major chemical companies producing pesticides, which he often talks about, freely and conspiratorially, as villains. This is the man I’m watching giddily unloading hundreds of hives of bees on Memorial Day weekend, well after dark, bouncing around in what looks like a nuclear-fallout suit and riding a bumpy little forklift called a Hummerbee, surrounded by clouds of angry bees. “People think you’re nuts,” he says. “Well, I probably am. I mean, you know, I enjoy this!”
Though Hackenberg became famous for raising the colony-collapse alarm, he puts scare quotes around the phrase when he uses it now, which is rarely. He doesn’t think there is a mystery behind the bee deaths; he doesn’t see any ghost-ship story when he looks at his hives or a parable about anxiety or a millenarian climate terror. He sees bees weakened by systemic pesticides. As we ride around the blueberry farm after dark, he casually flips through a mental file of conspiracy-seeming anecdotes: bee-health studies aborted when the results starting coming in; EPA reports with a headline finding that a certain chemical has a short half-life in soil but data showing it lasts 19-plus years; the recent revelation that American farmers had paid hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade for soybean pesticides that had zero effect on crop yields; being told by CropLife America that he shouldn’t be complaining about bee death since he was getting emergency livestock payments from the USDA to cover them; sitting in on an EPA meeting with seven or eight names listed on the conference dial-in and 15 or 20 hang-ups at the end of the call. “And that’s normal,” he says. “It’s no mystery,” he goes on. “I can take bees and put them out in the woods and they’ll turn out just fine and dandy. In areas where there’s no pesticides, they’ll turn out fine and dandy. Get a map out and look at it. There’s no mystery. It’s just follow the money trail.” Then he hops out of the truck to unload some bees.
When he climbs back in, it’s like a bookmark. “The problem here is that, almost like every place else we go, there’s so much pesticides and fungicides,” he says. He points out at the fields. “These blueberries here are already starting to open. At first, they don’t produce any nectar — really, bees don’t get much out of them for the first six or seven days. But what we’re seeing is ten days after that juice starts coming out of the flower from the pollen, the queens shut down” — he presumes because of the pesticides in the nectar — “the queens quit laying. Some of them, eventually, will come back and start re-laying. But if the queen don’t come back, you lose a hive.”
We’re sitting in the bright-red cab of one of his trucks, stenciled on the door with BUFFY BEE. There are pillows and blankets in the back seat, a phone and Bluetooth extension he keeps misplacing in the mess of the front, and dashboard-mounted satellite radio tuned permanently to Bluegrass Junction. It’s coming up on midnight, and we’ve been talking here already for a couple of hours. These are long days, and he’ll be waking up at three to start again at five, he tells me, unwrapping a new shipment as it comes in. “We’ll be out here about three weeks,” he guesses. “Till blueberries are done. Actually — I can guarantee how long that’ll be.” He pauses for a second to think. “We’ll be finished up about Father’s Day, because in 40-some years, I’ve only ever been home for Father’s Day twice,” he says.
Hackenberg has been coming to Wyman’s since 1975, and this is the first year he isn’t bringing his own bees. He’s not bringing them anywhere anymore — leaving them behind, instead, in Pennsylvania, where he doesn’t have to worry about pesticides and can let the bees do what they’re supposed to. “With my son, it’s got to the point having healthy bees is more important than having a paycheck. You get tired of having dead beehives. My son’s 40-some years old, he said, ‘Hey, they can go produce honey.’ A lot of the bees we’ve got sitting down in Pennsylvania right now have already made pretty close to 50 pounds of honey. My kid’s probably smarter than I am. He hit me between the eyes and said, ‘Hey, let’s do something different.’ ”
I ask him how many of his fellow beekeepers share his view of pesticides. “Seventy-five percent probably.” For their part, the chemical companies acknowledge that some pesticides have contributed to bee death, but point to studies showing the latest generation of sprays, when used in isolation and according to precise instructions, are safe for bees (several of them have also launched initiatives to improve foraging conditions by encouraging people to plant flowers). And while most of the scientists I spoke with wouldn’t go quite as far as Hackenberg, universally they pointed to pesticides as a problem. “The thing I would say about that White House report was, it was lacking in teeth on the pesticide side of things,” Goulson told me. “It basically said, ‘We need more research.’” He pauses. “There’s been an awful lot of research. And this is coming from someone who depends upon research dollars — I’ve spent my life doing research, you’d think I’d welcome the president of America saying we need more research on bees. But we know enough to know already that pesticides aren’t doing bees any good. And not just saying we need another ten years of research, because that’s just a delaying tactic. That suits the people who manufacture pesticides very very nicely indeed. It’s just a bit dumb.”
So why would beekeepers, knowing the dangers, continue to put their bees in harm’s way? “Here’s the deal — everybody needs a paycheck,” Hackenberg says. “That’s the big thing — it’s a guaranteed income. You go produce the honey — you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re at the mercy of a lot of stuff.” And there is still plenty of money in the pollination business. A good beekeeper can expect to bring in about $500 per year per hive ($150 after expenses, multiplied by at least a few thousand hives). Hackenberg is here in Maine just as a middleman — “Now I’m a bee broker, okay? And that used to be a dirty word.” And for his trouble — a week of unloading bees, a week or two of waiting, a week of loading them back up — he’ll take home about $60,000.
“The big thing in this whole thing is the mental stress — you get attached to these bees,” says Hackenberg. “It’s not just a bee or a beehive. It’s your business. I mean, somebody who has a garage — maybe you’re attached to that. I don’t know. But if you’re in agriculture, you get attached to your cows. I was born and raised a dairy farmer. You knew every one of them cows by name. I was a teenager — well, I wasn’t even a teenager by the time Dad got hurt in the farm accident, but even by then you knew what the cows were going to do. You knew their temperament. I had a load of bees yesterday — I knew the minute we took them things off the truck they’re going to be coming out and boiling at us. And I’ve got two loads here that I run all summer long, but they’re just about as ugly as sin.
“As a beekeeper, our mentality going way back was, you always thought you were in control. If you did something to that hive, you didn’t get it to honey crop in time, or you didn’t re-queen it right, or you didn’t put a new queen in it whenever it needed one, or you didn’t treat it for disease, or you didn’t do this or do that — it’d come back to haunt you. But you were in control. What’s going on right here is we’re being affected by something that we have no control over whatsoever. We’re being controlled by something in the environment. The honeybees — they’re working these plants because they don’t know any different. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Their nature is to go fly to this stuff even though it’s contaminated. They don’t know.”
He’s just as gloomy when I meet him the next day in the farm office. “I don’t know what you can do. I mean seriously,” he says. “Being naïve — you know, country-boy naïve, I figured, We’ll fix this thing overnight. We’ll get this fixed. They’ll be shutting this stuff down tomorrow. I got to Washington, everybody acted like — ”
He pauses. “My wife … did I tell you about the insect-bite deal?” He hadn’t. “About four years ago, about this time, she gets a bite. She doctored it, and it seemed to get a little better, but probably a couple of weeks later it just starts going bananas. I said, ‘We must have a dead mouse or something.’ She goes, ‘No, it’s my leg.’ Yellow crap was just oozing out through her skin. She goes to the doctor, and the doctor sends her to a dermatologist at Geisinger Medical Center, which is the Mayo Clinic of the East. The dermatologist there said, ‘My boss, the chief dermatologist, would like to visit you.’ He said, ‘First of all, well, you know you had an insect bite, probably a mosquito bite.’ He said you got an infection and something got in there. Then he said, ‘Do you play golf?’ No. ‘Do you have your lawn treated?’ No. ‘Do your grandchildren play sports?’ Yep. ‘Do you walk on the field?’ Oh, yeah. ‘That’s probably pesticide poisoning that caused that.’ ”
Hackenberg takes a breath. “She almost lost her leg. That’s how bad it was.” He trails off. “So I called my friend at the EPA. They have this database for bee kills, animal kills — they want to know all this stuff. That’s how they make their decisions. So I call him up in the evening. I called him. ‘Hey, how do I make an incident report?’ ‘Oh, okay. What do you got?’ ‘My wife.’ ‘Oh. What do you mean?’ So I explained it to him. ‘Oh, no, no, no, you can’t do that. She’s a human being. We don’t want no information on human beings.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Now, you can report your dog and your cat and your fish and your honeybees, but don’t call us about people. We don’t want to know about people.’ ”
Later, an EPA spokesperson tells me: “If that was the answer he was given, that was the wrong answer.” The agency does have a system for reporting human incidents, he says. But unlike pesticide contact through food, where the agency applies a hard, “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard, contact by humans with pesticides — through drinking water or directly from crops — is governed only by the standard of “unreasonable risk.” It’s a matter of “risk-benefit balancing,” the spokesman says, measured case by case. It is the same standard applied to livestock and fish. Or honeybees.
“I thought them people are there to help us,” Hackenberg says.
Then the farm manager pops his head into the office. “The truck here?” Hackenberg asks. “Come with me. We’re going to load some bees!” He lets out a little chortle. “There’ll be some angry bees,” Hackenberg says. “We’ll water them down, but they’ll still be angry.” He throws open the door and struts out. “Things are going to get ugly, I can tell you that.”
*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.