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Bee In His Bonnet

Commercial beekeeper John Miller discusses the perils facing the industry

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Steve Sweet removed his hat and veil, the sweet smell of smoke and lavender wafting from his backyard beehive in Southeast Boise. In one hand he held a frame filled with drone cells--male honey bee larvae. Using a fine-toothed fork, he dug under the waxy caps covering the cells and pulled out 50 buttery larvae.

"It's just loaded with mites, see those little brown dots moving around? That's a high mite count," he said, squinting at the fork.

The mite, known as the Varroa destructor, is a plague facing the beekeeping industry and a large factor in the much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder. The female mites catch a ride into the hive on the backs of honey bees then make their way into brood cells, where they lay eggs that hatch and feed on the bee larvae. The bees emerge deformed and weakened, and the mites spread.

"Without some sort of management, that amount of mites indicates that this hive next year, or this wintertime, will die," said Sweet, shaking his head.

In the summer, Sweet's bees collect pollen a mile upstream from Barber Park, creating stores of honey to last the long winter. Though Sweet usually harvests excess honey twice a season, the mites and a dearth of pollen have drastically reduced his yield. While he took 100 pounds off his backyard hive last year, he'll likely get about two pounds this year.

"There's just a touch of honey," he said. "They've been weakened by the mites."

Last year, Sweet lost two of his 25 large hives and 13 of 14 nucs, or smaller queen-raising hives. That level of loss can be a setback for hobbyists, but downright disastrous for commercial beekeepers like John Miller.

"If the beekeepers of America stopped treating their hives, there would be no bees in America probably in about two years," said Miller. "There's no feral swarms in Boise anymore; they're dead."

Miller is the subject of Hannah Nordhaus' 2011 novel, The Beekeeper's Lament, and plays a leading role in the new documentary, More Than Honey, which the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club will screen at a sold-out event at The Flicks Saturday, Aug. 17. Miller will give a post-film talk in honor of National Honey Bee Day--for which Mayor Dave Bieter has declared Boise the "City of Bees."

Miller, a self-proclaimed "media slut," has become the de facto mouthpiece for the commercial beekeeping industry, partly because of his 40-plus years in the business but also because he's not afraid to speak his mind.

"Varroa has been and is the central challenge. She's just like a tick ... but she's more like the size of a beagle instead of a tick, relative to a honeybee," said Miller. "She's murderous; she's a bad bug."

Though Miller's bees spend their summers in North Dakota, he moves 90 percent of his hives--around 10,000--to the Southeast Idaho town of Blackfoot every winter.

"We put them in a--the $10 word is 'climate controlled storage,' the $5 word is 'potato cellar,'" said Miller. "A potato is a lot like a beehive, they want to be about 40-41 degrees, dark and quiet, low humidity."

In late January, Miller's hives make the trek to California's Central Valley almond orchards, where 80 percent of the world's almond crop is produced. Miller calls it the "biggest pollination event on the planet."

In The Beekeeper's Lament, Nordhaus notes that importing honey bees increases yields from 40 pounds of almonds per acre to 2,400 pounds per acre. "To build an almond, it takes a bee," she writes.

While pollinating the almond crop might be the biggest annual moneymaker for commercial beekeepers--raking in $150-$170 a hive--it also poses some problems. Not only are the hives more susceptible to mites and other parasites while the bees are mingling, but they're concentrated in one spot long before other crops are blossoming.

"Once that pollination event concludes, you've got 2 million hives looking for work and they scatter across the country, but the blueberries are not in bloom in Maine and the cranberries are not in bloom in Wisconsin and the apples are not in bloom in Washington for another six weeks," said Miller. "It's like, where can you go?"

That question speaks to a larger problem: Bees are suffering from a real estate shortage.

"One of every four acres in America is in corn and another 65 million acres is in soybeans, and neither one of those crops are any good to bees," said Miller.

But here's the irony. Because of the shrinking availability of open land where bees can forage wild pollen, beekeepers have to supplement their hives with other sugars--often from the very crop that encroached on the bees in the first place: high fructose corn syrup.

"In the United States of America in the past three years, beekeepers have fed more calories to their hives than they have harvested from their hives," said Miller, who opts for sucrose.

Miller continued: "I don't know what in the hell they're thinking in Washington, D.C., but conservation programs are suffering and with them, the bees."

Deadly Ms. Varroa is perhaps a wilier adversary than the government. While beekeepers have found a number of ways to kill the mites, they have grown resistant to the treatments.

So Miller and Sweet are putting faith in scientists at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., who have developed a bee sperm bank with stock gathered from Europe, Asia and Africa. The new genes might boost parasite resistance for American bees, whose genetic pool has grown stagnant during the 90-year U.S. ban on importing live honey bees.

"I started beekeeping in '73 before the mites and all that stuff, and then the mites came and everything just went in the tank," said Sweet. "Now we're kinda learning to deal with it, but if we get rid of the mite, it will just give another birth to beekeeping again."

Miller agrees, and hopes to continue talking about the threats facing bees--which are responsible for pollinating a third of U.S. crops.

"Globally, Ms. Varroa is swaggering across the planet like a colossus, imperiling this relationship between humans and bees, thus imperiling the relationship between bees and flowers," said Miller. "People should sit up and pay attention. The honey bee is the canary in the coal mine."