BEES IN HIS BLOOD
Jose Torres is a seventh-generation beekeeper. Now in his 40s, he’s handled bees more days of his life than he has not, since he was a child, as far back as he can remember. His father has the same story. As does his grandfather, and his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather.
Torres comes from Ciudad Guzmán, a town nestled in a valley of Jalisco, Mexico, where he says keeping bees is as common as keeping pets. His wife knows bees, though she doesn’t work with them much anymore. His teenage son often accompanies him to collect honey and tend to hives. His young daughter will also become acquainted. She’s already been chased — and stung — by an angry swarm. Torres and his son laugh when they recall her swatting the air and running for cover. They are bee people. Being stung is inevitable.
Torres says he can’t count the number of times it’s happened to him. He’s practically immune, or at least he appears to be, as he tends to his hives without gloves or a protective face net. He keeps 70-odd hives in Las Vegas — nearly 20 at a private residence off of Windmill Road, and another 50 or so just north of town.
“They’re gentle,” Torres says, pacifying the hive with plumes of smoke squirted from his bee smoker, which resembles an old-fashioned oil can.
Being stung is no big deal, he says. What bothers him is the fact that bees are dying en masse.
Torres isn’t even a full-time beekeeper — not yet, anyway. His primary income comes from driving trucks and brokering auction cars. But he’s determined to save the valley’s unwanted Africanized hives — Africanized bees, so-called “killer bees,” are usually exterminated when their hives get too close to humans — to make them gentler by replacing their queens with less-aggressive queens, even if it means doing it alone.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
To understand the importance of the honeybee, picture the produce section of a grocery store. Almost everything in it — fruits, vegetables, nuts, sprouts — requires pollination. If bees didn’t pollinate crops, very little produce would grow. Diversity in fruits and vegetables would drop off dramatically. We might have pineapple, coconut and a couple of root vegetables, such as potatoes and turnips, but nonpollinated produce ends there, says Gloria Hoffman, research leader at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz. The center is part of the federal Agricultural Research Service, the in-house science agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.
“The foods that bees pollinate are the cornerstone of cancer-fighting, heart-healthy diets,” Hoffman says.
Almost all staple fruits and vegetables in the American diet — apples, grapes, carrots, broccoli — grow thanks to the handiwork of bees. Even an abbreviated list is exhausting.
To give an idea of how many food-producing plants are pollinated by bees, the “list of crop plants pollinated by bees” entry on Wikipedia includes roughly 140 crops worldwide, including coffee and other beans. Even lettuce, which is not pollinated directly, needs its seeds to be pollinated in order to grow. Surprised?
It doesn’t end there.
“Cotton has to be pollinated by bees, too,” says Torres, tugging at his T-shirt.
“Everything we eat, everything we’re wearing, it has to be pollinated by the bees,” he says. “We need the bees for our survival.”
Our own well-being is tied to the well-being of bees, which is worrisome, since they’re disappearing — rapidly.
According to the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the phenomenon now called Colony Collapse Disorder was first noted in October 2006, when beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. The bees would disappear suddenly, leaving behind no bodies and no apparent explanation.
Since 2006, more than 10 million hives, or individual habitats like bee boxes, have been lost at a cost of more than $2 billion to beekeepers, and the numbers continue to decline.
Although researchers can now identify possible reasons for the disorder, where adult bees suddenly abandon a hive, the epidemic is not simple — or even possible — to curb.
FIT FOR ROYALTY
In a converted barn south of town, Torres is hunched over a table, examining a frame of bee larvae with a flashlight. Some are nearly microscopic, others are clearly visible and maggot-like. In a foot-long rack of small, plastic cups that resemble honeycomb, Torres uses an eyedropper to place royal jelly into the cells. Royal jelly, a bee secretion used to feed larvae, is what separates royalty from the rest. While a future worker is only fed royal jelly in the first three days of its life, a queen-in-the-making is served jelly until she hatches, which triggers a larger physiology with egg-laying abilities.
With surgical precision, Torres uses a metal dentist-like tool to scoop the nearly invisible three-day-old larvae from the frame and place them atop shallow pools of royal jelly. But he must be careful in his movements. One tremble of his hand and a would-be queen will drown in her bath.
Left for days, a morel mushroom-like casing, called a queen cell, envelopes each larva, which begins to grow into a pale queen, with an abdomen and thorax that resembles milk glass.
When the bee reaches adulthood, she will hatch, and Torres must be there to capture her.
He has created an Italian queen, one that will soon rule an Africanized hive, changing its genetics and therefore its behavior.
ALL ABOUT AFRICANIZED
Although there are thousands of bee species, there are only two kinds of honeybees — African and European.
Europeans honeybees were brought to the United States in the early 1800s by European settlers who were accustomed to having honey. The more aggressive Africanized variety came to the United States starting in the 1990s. Researchers, pointing to honey-producing countries like Brazil, where all bees are Africanized, believe they came from South America, by way of Central America and into Texas. Today, Africanized honeybees live in the southern half of the country, but don’t seem to be migrating any farther north.
After several unfortunate incidents, in which Africanized bees swarmed and injured (sometimes killed) people, Africanized bees were dubbed “killer bees.”
“Because they’re called ‘killer bees’, people think they go after people, but what they’re doing is defending their home,” says UNLV assistant professor and bee expert Michelle Elekonich. “And they have a bigger idea of what ‘home’ is.” Africanized bees protect a larger radius around their hive than European honeybees do, and also chase intruders farther than their gentler counterparts.
Scientifically speaking, they’re not bad, per se, they’re just more territorial.
In Las Vegas, most bees are Africanized. And because we don’t have much agricultural use for bees, hives found close to human establishments are typically exterminated rather than rescued. “Removal,” Torres says, is an oft-used and misleading word that might imply that the bees leave the scene alive. It’s true that the bees are removed, but only after being killed.
Torres is one of the few keepers who does live removal, and Elekonich says Bee Masters does as well.
Even though bees are in short supply nationwide, Hoffman says there are some situations that warrant extermination.
“It has to do with liability,” she says. “It depends how densely populated the area is.” Hives near elementary schools, for example, are a good candidate for extermination.
In the city of Las Vegas, bee removal is handled by the fire department, though there is no specific ordinance that pertains to bees. In the county, a unit called Vector Control oversees bees, weeds and other pests. From the county website: “Vector Control eliminates Africanized honey bees found on County property and advises residents on measures to help prevent and control Africanized honeybees on private property.”
“If bees are Africanized in a colony or hive and it’s endangering safety or health, then you have to deal with them,” says county Public Information Officer Dan Kulin.
In Chapter 11.06 of county ordinance, a hive is classified as a public nuisance if it “injures or endangers the safety or health of the general public or the occupants of the property upon which a nest,” or if it “interferes with the normal use and enjoyment of the property or the property of others.”
While hives on public or private property are considered pests and call for removal, beekeeping laws vary and aren’t easy to track, Elekonich says. The last time she called around, “It was illegal in Las Vegas, legal in Clark County, and Henderson didn’t know.”
In the state, under Nevada Revised Statute 554.110, all Africanized bees in Clark County are considered under quarantine (and most bees in Southern Nevada are Africanized).
In order to move or distribute bees they have to first be certified as non-Africanized. If they are found to be Africanized, they must be destroyed within 30, or its queen must be replaced.
Torres prefers the latter.
INTRODUCING THE NEW QUEEN
When the Italian queen is ready to reign, it’s not as easy as simply placing her on a throne in an Africanized hive. She would be killed immediately. To acclimate the colony to the new queen, Torres places her in a small box at the bottom of the hive, covered by a “candy plug,” a sugar cube-like mixture of powdered sugar, honey and water. Over the next few days, the worker bees will eat the plug, becoming accustomed to the queen’s scent before finishing the cube and releasing her.
Once she is freed, she will mate and lay eggs. Within six weeks, Hoffman says, the colony will be Europeanized, and therefore less defensive and easier to handle.
Torres’ goal is twofold. One, he wants to amass enough de-Africanized hives to start a pollination service, to make bees his full-time job. Nationally, pollination is a $15-billion industry that provides rented hives to agricultural communities. Depending on the crop, each acre of farmland requires at least two hives for adequate pollination. Honey production, in contrast, is a much smaller industry.
Regardless of whether he gets a pollination service up and running, Torres says his larger goal is that he just wants to see bees thrive.
To do this, he says, we need more beekeepers in the valley (he and Elekonich agree there are about 30) and to get the word out.
He and Elekonich have both tried to start bee clubs but they fizzled out. He’s going to start teaching beekeeping privately and would also like to establish laws that protect bees, mandating their rescue, rather than calling for their removal.
Although Las Vegas isn’t an agriculture community, bees still have vast purpose, says Elekonich. They pollinate horticultural plants and landscapes.
THE PROBLEM AND SOLUTION
Today there are 2.5 million managed colonies nationwide, down from 5 million in the 1940s. Colonies are the actual bee “families” that reside in hives, or bee habitats.
In May, the USDA released a report identifying key factors in Colony Collapse Disorder, though it’s hard to say how the variables interact.
Researchers believe bee depopulation is due to a combination of factors, including parasitic mites, viruses, bacterial diseases and use of pesticides. Though pesticides may not kill outright — the EPA is still studying this issue — they may contain chemicals that interfere with bees’ internal radar, which prevents them from returning to the hive.
Pollination services may also create stress.
“It’s a confluence of events,” Hoffman says, “especially in pollination services.”
Hoffman’s solution is to create bee refuges, where bees can forage without pesticides after pollination gigs. Though refuges are not common, Hoffman says they must start small, on a community level. After all, we rely on bees. Why shouldn’t they rely on us?
The good news, Hoffman says, is that people are coming around and want to get involved more than ever.
“People are more aware of the importance of honeybees to U.S. agriculture and to our nutrition,” she says. Bees make it possible to grow fruits and vegetables in mass quantities at an affordable price.
If you want to help bees, Hoffman says, plant a garden (sunflowers in particular bring out the full spectrum of bees), be aware of pesticides that kill pollinators and be conscientious in general because it all boils down to this:
“We’re going to have a healthy human population if we have a healthy bee population,” Hoffman says.