Corky Luster is checking his bees. “My suit and tie is pretty much a veil and a hive tool,” he says. On a cool day he gives them sugar water to build up their resources. There’s a tapering of nectar just before it begins in earnest when blackberries bloom. “Now we’re going to add a box and I’m just going to put this box on top of the next box.”
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This is penthouse living for bees — four to five hives stacked on top of each other on the roof of Bastille Restaurant, one of many clients of Luster’s Ballard Bee Company. By the peak of summer there will be up to 60,000 bees living in the stack.
“You don’t want to get caught with too few boxes," he explains. "You can end up with a swarm because the bees want to leave because it’s too crowded.” But no worries. These tiny golden Italian bees are gentle, says Luster. “Some people have kids that laugh and smile all the time. This is that kid, that hive.”
Luster learned beekeeping in 1983, but he didn't really get into it until later, when he stopped seeing bees in his own backyard. “I felt like every year it seemed there were less and less bees, so I decided to jump back into it.”
Today he manages 135 hives, but wonders how much longer he and others can stay in business. Six years ago as many as half of all bee colonies died in the U.S., parts of Europe, and Asia. Colony collapse disorder, as the problem is termed, destroys the bee immune system. Sick bees become so disoriented they can’t find their way home.
Food growers took note. Most fruits and vegetables rely on bees for pollination. Almonds are 100 percent bee dependent. Apples, cherries and watermelon close to 90 percent.
Researchers cite various causes for colony collapse disorder: viruses, parasites — and pesticides. If you study pesticide use in the U.S. there’s a progression of one chemical family replacing another, says Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, a not-for-profit advocacy group.
“Rachel Carson wrote about DDT and organochlorine pesticides and their long residual life in the environment,” he notes. Though DDT was banned in 1972, Feldman says that the pesticide industry has continued to replace one set of chemicals with another. The latest approach is to inject chemical pesticides into seeds, which become incorporated into the vascular system of plants.
Called systemic pesticides, the most worrisome of these is clothianidin, which is expressed through pollen. The same pollen that bees transport from flower to flower. An estimated 94 percent of 92 million acres of corn planted across the U.S. is treated with clothianidin, which was introduced in 2003. Honeybees rely on corn as a source of protein. “What we’re seeing is the blanketing of large areas of agriculture with systemic chemicals that are picked up by those insects that are pollinating,” Feldman says.
Clothianidin, manufactured by Bayer, is the subject of a legal petition filed by Beyond Pesticides, beekeepers and others. The petition calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend the registration that allowed Bayer to sell the pesticide before safety data was collected. It also asks Congress to exercise oversight authority.
The EPA is currently reviewing the pesticide, but the process may last through 2018. “So we have a failed regulatory process that’s allowed the introduction of this chemical without adequate questions answered,” explained Feldman. It's a failure that's still manifesting itself in the failure of the bee population.
This winter Luster lost half of his bees. “I feel like we’re at a tipping point in this crisis," he says. "Any industry – if this was dairy, if you said I just lost half my cows you’d have the National Guard running out there to see what was going on. So this is what beekeepers are up against.”
Corky Luster recognizes the failed regulatory process. “Until we get a lot of big corporations out of government there’s no way we’re going to have a clean slate or even fight on if this should be allowed or not.” Still, he's optimistic things can be turned around.
Around the country, there’s been a resurgence in beekeeping and an explosion of people growing pesticide-free food. In Woodinville, 21 Acres, a Center for Sustainable Food and Living, offers a popular beekeeping class. At a recent meeting of the class, enthusiasm ran high among students: “Oh, I see the queen right here." "Oh my gosh. This is fabulous." "This bee’s a superstar."
Beekeeping started as a hobby for students Keith and Claudia Haunreiter. Now their teenage son is hooked too. “If we don’t have the bees and they’re getting poisoned, they’re struggling terribly because of pesticides and other issues – we don’t have bees, we don’t have some food,” explains Claudia Haunreiter.
There’s a lot to learn and a lot at stake.
Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby.