The bee guy told me they’ve solved the problem of the vanishing bees.
“It’s not pesticides or cell phone towers or any of that stuff they guessed,” he assured me, “It’s Israeli Acute Virus. The bees are literally starving to death.”
Beeguy is passionate about his bees and his honey. He and his lady bring jars and jars of the stuff to the Portland Farmers Market to taste–buckwheat, white clover, cherry, even coffee–and they’ll sell you a bottle of whatever’s in stock for $8. (I recommend the wild blackberry, which tastes like a good light honey but finishes like blackberry jam.)
He’s a honey evangelist, touting the healthful benefits of honey and scoffing at the notion that all honeys taste alike. “Heck no!” he cried, shaking a finger when someone suggested that most people couldn’t tell the difference.
“Here,” he challenged, pressing a handful of toothpicks on that poor benighted honeyrube, and gesturing to the array of open honey jars, “Start from the left and go to the right; they’re all different and they get stronger as you head toward the buckwheat. This meadowfoam (on the far left) tastes like marshmallow cream. Native Oregon flower, doesn’t grow anywhere else, and it makes honey like a creamy marshmallow. Taste it.”
Eight toothpicks later, honeyrube bought the meadowfoam honey and Beeguy grinned smugly, although he says the honey gig is at best a sideline.
“No beekeeper from the dawn of time ever made money on honey,” he grimaced, “The money comes from pollination.” Beekeepers truck their hives to a farmer’s fields just as the blossoms emerge, and leave them until flowering’s over. The bees’ honey takes on the flavor of the plants, and the farmers’ crops get fertilized.
Beeguy has lots of hives, and he’s always on the lookout for more. “People get swarms in their yard or somewhere, I charge $50 to come get them and it’s one more colony for me.
And sometimes the bees come to him. “One night,” he added, “I stripped the top off some honeycomb (for some reason I didn’t understand) and left it outside. The bee scouts found it a few minutes later, and the next morning we heard this roar outside. A whole swarm of bees had come in for that comb. First time they’ve ever come to me. Hmmmm,” he said, rubbing his chin,” I’ll have to try that again.”
“Right now I have more than 2200 hives and farmers pay me $35/hive for pollination. So,” he grinned, “you do the math.”
While the money is great, it’s not the driving force behind his beekeeping, Beeguy says. “I want my bees on plants that make great honey. The guy with 4 acres of lavender, well, I really want that lavender but there’s not enough for my bees. But my friend found this big open meadow, full of wildflowers and we put the hives there…you should TASTE that honey.”
He won’t accept the huge sums currently offered by California farmers desperate to rent beehives. “One-oh-five, that’s one hundred and FIVE dollars. Per hive. You could get rich.”
But Israeli Acute Virus is rife down south and returning bees would likely infect the rest of his colonies. “Israeli Acute is horrible. See, the bees aren’t born with pollen sacs, the places on their legs where they store the food they bring back to the hive. It’s like how you’d be if you were born without hands. They can’t carry the food back, they can’t feed themselves, so they fly off and die.”
The Web resources I check say Israeli Acute causes wing shivering, total paralysis and eventually death, not an absence of pollen sacs, but what do I know? I’m not a beekeeper, and Beeguy’s so passionate about his craft, gestures, eyerolls and all, that I’m more than willing to take his word for it.
“I sent a letter to the USDA, I told them that they shouldn’t allow bees to be moved in and out of California. I told them the obvious solution was for beekeepers to sell California their own hives and let them stay there so they can develop resistance or something. I’m not a scientist–we need scientists to fix this–but that seems pretty clear to me. Only the USDA never got back to me.”
He and a fellow beekeeper talk smoking the bees (he doesn’t, and fortunately I know what this means because in Oregon you can’t always be sure WHAT is being smoked), the depredations of mites and what’s coming up for pollination. All the while, the fervor sweeps through his face in waves, and I just keep snapping away.