January 31, 08
“You got a pallet or what,” David Hackenberg shouts to his son Davie from across the bee yard where the two are consolidating hives, getting rid of bad equipment in preparation for the almond bloom in California.
“Make sure you’re wiping the pallets off before you set ‘em down,”
he adds in that indelible accent of his.
For this film shoot we’ve driven to Dade, Florida, a city with only 6,615 people and more than 88 million bees. We’re here to meet the poster boy behind Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Unbeeknowst to us (just yet) he’ll also bee the main character in our documentary.
It’s 82 degrees Fahrenheit and humid like hell. Not the best weather to wear a heavy cotton one-piece bee suit. Despite taking off my jeans and tee shirt, pearls of sweat are still making their way down my chest.
Unfortunately not wearing a bee suit isn’t an option in this bee yard. We’ve found ourselves in a storm; gazillions, buzzing around in thick dark clouds, seemingly in an uproar.
In fact, as I was suiting up I got stung in the right cheek. In a matter of moments, I resembled an Icelandic chipmunk. Part Bjork part rodent.
“These bees are aggressive,” George said a few minutes before getting stung himself.
“Shit! That hurts,” he exclaimed reaching for his shin and almost dropping the camera.
“ I know, I know,” I nodded emphatically.
“Here,” said a bee man named Laverne, tossing George a thick roll of silver tape as he gestured us to go far away.
And with that, we both instantly started toward the car. As we ran back to our rental to seal up our ankles and wrists, several bees chased after us.
Once a bee stings, a second one is never far behind. That’s because she exudes a pheromone that magically signals that other bees need attack. These fuzzy creatures are so devoted that they can instantly turn into suicide bombers ready to give up their lives for the greater good of their hive.
One of the first lessons a neophyte learns is never to remove a stinger by pinching it between thumb and forefinger because squeezing the poison sac forces just more venom into the wound. We learned the hard way - use a quick sideways flick of a fingernail instead.
There’s no doubt that bees can cause dramatic discomfort. When that bee stung me in the face, the pain instantly made me think that “killer bees,” were going to get me. The turn of phrase must have somehow seeped into my psyche thanks to cult films like The Swarm and "Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare.” And I’ve never even seen either.
Later, I learned that these bees were indeed African hybrids. They’re prominent in Florida and definitely more aggressive and resilient than the rest. This you learn after hanging out with Italians, Caucasians, Russians and the like.
Last October, David Hackenberg left 400 hives in a field in Ruskin Florida to feed on Brazilian pepper blossoms. When he returned a month later, all but 36 of the colonies had been abandoned. The bees had literally disappeared.
“I could tell the whole order of things had just gone haywire,” the former president of the American Beekeeping Federation remarked. “I had tears in my eyes many a night.”
As fate would have it, the 60-year old is an entertaining talker seldom unplugged from his ear-mounted cell phone. (Early on CCD was blamed on cell phones. There was a running inside joke that if that were the case, Hackenberg would have killed them off long time ago. ) On the drive home, Hackenberg called fellow beekeepers, a blueberry grower, an importer of queens from Australia. He started making noise and complaining loudly.
Beekeepers are like Greek housewives; they like to gossip. In no time, the entire beekeeping community had heard about this odd phenomenon. While many beekeepers reported the same experience, not all beelieved him. Many attributed his losses to PPB – piss poor beekeeping, calling him a ‘bad beekeeper,’ and the phenomenon “Hackenbergitis.”
Meanwhile, the local news got wind of the story and almost overnight hundreds of other publications picked it up. Soon, there were accounts of Colony Collapse worldwide.
Now, every other week camera crews were visiting David Hackenberg, coming as far away as France and China. When we initially contacted us he turned us down because Sixty Minutes was due to pay him a visit.
When correspondent Steve Kroft asked him to recount the experience, David explained that he was so baffled, he literally got down on his hands and knees and crawled around.
“There was no dead bees. There were no dead bees anywhere. I mean, you couldn’t find any bees. They flew off someplace,” Hackenberg told him.
Beezare since bees have a sophisticated navigation system that uses the sun and landmarks as points of reference. They can travel up to three miles in search of food, then find their way back by following the unique smell of their hive. Even in a wretched monoculture, bees can find their way home.
“These bees look like they’ve gone beezerk,” I told Hackenberg, when we returned to the bee yard.
“Yeah, they’re a little touchy. They’re crazee bees,” he says with chuckle.
As he speaks, Hackenberg holds one hand with the other; his fingers are buckled from arthritis and hard work. I notice that two of his fingers on his right hand are missing.
At first it’s a little hard to understand what exactly Dave is saying. It’s not because I am Canadian or slow; it’s his twang ~ a strange mixture of Pennsylvania meets the Sunshine State. David could easily be dismissed as a hick. He doesn’t drink beer or reside in a trailer but he’s a farmer who speaks in incomplete sentences and dresses the part. Except Hackenberg’s observations on CCD make a lot of sense.
In the yard, the 6’2 Sarah Palin supporter is wearing his signature outfit. Accessory number one – a multi-colored baseball hat that reads Buffy Bee, the name of his apiary. (Named after Buffalo Valley, Pennsylvania, a place near his hometown and the last place where the Great Buffalo was supposedly seen and slain). Accessory number two: a large square-shaped brass belt-buckle engraved with images of bees around a honeycomb. And lest we forget the cowboy boots of course. Rumor has it, David has never worn running shoes in his entire life. Even recent foot surgery couldn’t get him out of boots and near those things.
“So what are you doing today David,” I prod. I am still sweating profusely. And my cheek itches.
“What we’re doing here is we’re working bees; we’re going through these bees and getting them all ready to go to California for almond season. We’re making sure they’re all good-looking beehives. Evening up the population for the ones that don’t got,” he explains.
In essence “working bees” means manipulating the hive.
Commercial beekeeping is all about controlling and tricking bees. “Some artifice or ruse is involved at almost every step, beguiling them into thinking the artificial and imposed are the real,” writes Longgood in The Queen Must Die
For instance, if you’re a commercial beekeeper, you need your bees to forage all year round. Silly bees, there’s no time for hibernation. These bees are their bread and butter -- and your bread and butter for that matter. In this age of around the clock production and consumption, the natural cycles of nature just won’t do. So instead commercial beekeepers feed bees sugar water– or gulp corn syrup - to trigger brood-laying.
Presto ~ the bees think it’s eternally summertime. If they don’t pull this trick, you’ll just have to buy your blueberries from Chile this year instead of Maine. Or wait, maybe you already buy your blueberries from South America and don’t even know it?
Summer usually means a lot of baby-laying. Unfortunately overcrowded hives means swarming, which is when an older queen bee migrates to establish a new colony. Swarming is also a no-no. A commercial bee keeper sans bees is bust. To make bees think there is more room, another nifty trick is to add extra boxes to the hive, therefore creating space while expanding. Bee population tends to peak during spring and summer. For extra swarm-proofing measures a beekeeper can always clip a queen bee’s wings. Nice.
More boxes spur the queen’s daughters, the worker bees, to make more honey since they think it’s a time for the 'honey flow'. But honey, honey is heavy ; it weighs things down. Trucking bees across the nation is no easy task. The last thing beekeepers need is to schlep liquid gold across the nation. Yet another reason to ‘take’ all their honey. Much easier to feed bees sugar water or corn syrup once they get to their new destination. Just like nature intended.
In this particular case, David and Davie are consolidating hive boxes. There are so many dead outs (empty boxes) from CCD that they decide to take frames from one hive-home and place them in an entirely different box.
It looks as though these bees are ousted from their homes and forced to live with a strange family before immediately hitting the road on a long and hot journey. And this feat was not being undertaken with grace. Oh no, there was a lot of agitation, pulling and jostling and prying apart sticky frames. The only trick that didn’t seem to be working were the smokers meant to subdue the bees. (When there’s a fire, bees engorge with honey and become gentle. Hence a gadget was created that releases smoke).
When I told David Mendes yesterday that we’d spent lots of time with bees on our film shoots but had yet to get stung, he cut me off.
“That’s because you’ve been hanging out with theoretical beekeepers. This is the real thing.”
I guess so. It’s real in a society which places profits over people. In a world where bees are indentured servants.
Years ago, new fangled listening equipment and computer software revealed a secret bee vocabulary much more intricate than previously thought. (Bees lack sound-making organs, but they buzz by vibrating their wings and bodies and pushing air through spiracles — tiny airways used for respiration).But there was no secret here. These bees were wickedly pissed. The energy in the bee yard was one of hostility and you could hear it in their buzz.
“So how many hives are you taking to California?” George and I ask Hackenberg.
“How many? About two trailer loads. About eight hundred and some… hopefully. I’ll tell you when we’re done’m,” he says and then laughs. David and his son were planning on sending more hives West but they kept loosing bees to CCD.
Luckily, the biggest and best trick works every time. The ruse is called a “split.” Beekeepers "split" hives, meaning they take bees from one healthy colony to a new box and then add a commercially-raised young queen. This trick enabled Hackenberg to build back 400 hives.
In fact, it’s allowed lots of beekeepers to stay in business. They fill their holes but they also ‘become their own worst nightmares’ because the tactic is not sustainable and requires them to work harder then every before.
Migratory beekeeping is not for the feckless or lazy.
“David don’t you think all this trucking around shows that we’ve become out of sync with nature.”
“Oh my word, yeah,” he says with a laugh. “Yeah we’re out of sync with nature. We’ve been out of sync with nature for a long time…Maybe it’s because we’re pushing the ground too hard, the ground’s farmed out. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on, you know? And nobody’s got the right answer.”
David goes on to tell us that’s it’s “unnatural” for bees to forage one crop for several weeks at a time. He likens it to eating steak and potatoes for six weeks straight. He reckons it would be bad for his health even though he’s a steak and potatoes kind of a guy.
“You know, my body couldn’t take that. So, you know, maybe the bees
are having a problem. You know, but unfortunately I wouldn’t be here keeping these bees if it wouldn’t be for pollination.”
And herein lies the rub. Hackenberg is part of the broken down system.
“And unfortunately a lot of people out there don’t realize that one out of every three bites of food they put in their mouth, these honeybees put on their dinner table, but what do I know, I am just a dumb beekeeper.”