THE PLIGHT OF THE HONEY BEE
By ANDREW MCGINN
There’s getting to be so much to take in at the Thomas Jefferson Gardens that it’s entirely possible to overlook one of its newest features — a little wooden box nestled near the back fence.
Inside the nondescript box is an insect of outsized importance.
You might not notice a beehive, but if bees continue disappearing, life will never be the same.
It’s that simple: If bees don’t have a healthy future, neither do humans.
Scranton beekeeper Cail Calder, who owns and operates Bee Mindful out of an old Allis-Chalmers dealership behind the town’s public library, is the one who placed the hive recently at the Thomas Jefferson Gardens in downtown Jefferson, where his honey bees will pollinate the surrounding plants.
Every so often, he encounters people who tell him, “I just eat meat.”
“What do you think the meat eats, dude?” he explained with a chuckle.
One third of all the food we eat is directly or indirectly derived from honey bee pollination.
Calder currently has bees on apples and blueberries in Washington state; onions in Arizona; and lemons in California when they’re not on almonds.
But, anymore, it’s tough being a honey bee.
Not to mention a beekeeper.
Honey bees — Calder’s calling ever since he moved back home to Greene County from Chicago — are increasingly susceptible to a host of threats.
Before going into the bee business in 2013, the 56-year-old Calder admittedly didn’t think of himself as a tree hugger.
“I’ve just been pushed that way,” he said.
Beekeepers and other conservationists scored a major victory last month when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that 12 bee-killing pesticide products would be pulled from the market, effective May 20, as part of a legal settlement.
The widely used pesticides — all belonging to a newer class known as neonicotinoids, or neonics — will be used on millions of acres of corn and soybeans.
Calder had noticed that whenever he set hives out before spring planting, bees were sickly and not up on honey production.
That, he came to discover, was because seeds are most commonly coated with neonics before they even go in the ground.
Neonics — developed in the ’90s from nicotine — in turn contaminate nearby plants and flowers during planting in the form of dust, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, rendering the entire plant toxic to pollinators like bees (both honey bees and bumble bees).
They also flow from runoff into streams and have been found to persist in the soil for years, according to the Xerces Society.
Calder said there’s “no doubt” that neonics are killing bees. He thinks it’s likely that he’s lost bees of his own to neonics, which were initially championed, ironically, as less toxic to mammals.
The announcement last month that Syngenta, Bayer and Valent were voluntarily pulling 12 of their products from market was the result of a 2013 lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety against the EPA on behalf of conservationists and beekeepers. A federal court this past December concluded that the EPA was wrong to have approved the products for sale.
But neonics are far from the only threat to Calder’s livelihood.
A 1982 graduate of Jefferson Community High School and a fourth-generation Greene Countian, Calder was managing bees and selling honey as far back as high school, when he and friend Pat Zmolek went into business together as Sweet Sting.
It was so much easier back then.
Native to Asia, Varroa mites didn’t arrive in the United States until 1987, and have since gone on to kill massive numbers of bees and their colonies.
Small hive beetles arrived in 1996 via sub-Saharan Africa, and were followed by wax moths in 1998.
Thanks to climate change, Calder explained, it never gets cold enough in the winter for long enough to kill off certain pests.
“You’ve got your deniers who aren’t going to believe me,” he said. “I gave up arguing with those people. Why agitate yourself in the process? Life’s too short.”
Then came the exotic pathogens — Israeli acute paralysis virus in 2004, and European foulbrood bacteria in 2005.
But nothing dominated news headlines last decade quite like CCD: Colony Collapse Disorder.
As far as phenomenons went, it was practically apocalyptic — worker bees would simply vanish, leaving only a queen, honey and some holdout nurse bees.
No dead bees were ever found.
Were pesticides to blame? Climate change? One (debunked) story theorized that cellphones and cell towers were affecting the homing systems of honey bees.
The syndrome remains unexplained.
There were probably multiple factors, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, but the phenomenon has also largely waned.
Our whole way of life seems to be hanging onto an insect that literally works itself to death after about six to eight weeks.
As pollinators, managed honey bees add at least $15 billion in value annually to American agriculture, according to the USDA.
Some days, Calder thinks about how differently his life might have been had he purchased a hot dog cart instead of beekeeping equipment.
For one, he’s confident he would have already made $1 million.
For years, he traveled the world in the construction industry. But by the time he became a site superintendent, he found he was spending too much time in pointless meetings.
He began longing for a change, and the hot dog carts operating on the streets of Chicago looked to be a pretty solid bet.
“They were raking it in,” he recalled. “They had long lines.”
“Surely,” he began thinking, “there’s some way I can work this.”
His wife, Sheryl, quickly dismissed the hot dog cart idea as stupid.
So he thought of bees.
Calder had originally purchased his first beehive, made of cypress, when he was 9 or 10 at a garage sale in western Nebraska, where his family lived at the time.
“A swarm moved in,” he said. “I was hooked.”
His grandfather gave him a rusted smoker and some mildewed gloves, and Calder was set.
On this day, he didn’t even bother with the gloves and a veil as he pulled some bees from a hive — he’s now up to between 400 and 500 hives, and he rarely gets stung most days.
“In some ways,” he said, “it’s soothing to me to watch the bees come and go. It just seems like a natural thing.”
Calder is a regular on Tuesdays at the Greene County Farmers’ Market, where he sells raw honey that’s “as close to organic as the government will allow.”
The truth is, there’s no such thing as organic honey in Iowa, he said, because bees are likely to forage on plants contaminated with chemicals of some kind. Bees travel up to three miles.
The grounds of his business on Stanton Street in Scranton are pollinator-friendly, meaning it draws in bees and butterflies, but irritates the city council.
White clover dots the yard, and tall, purple thistles sway in the breeze. He mows at different heights.
Beekeeping in Scranton has alternated between legal and illegal — it’s back to being illegal, Calder noted, making him something of an outlaw in town.
“The smaller the town,” he observed, “the tougher the politics.”
At one time, nearly every farmstead had a beehive or two.
As small farms dwindle, so too do the numbers of managed honey bee colonies, according to the USDA, from 5 million in the ’40s to 2.66 million today.
Calder finds himself increasingly at odds with big ag.
Ironically, his stepfather was a pioneer in genetically modified seeds.
“All the things they’ve done with corn,” Calder said, “they’ve never made it more nutritious.”
With the rise of hog confinements, Calder said he’s tried to convince CAFO operators to plant pollinator-friendly plants instead of grass — no one has taken him up yet on the suggestion.
“It’s a 20-year process to change people’s minds,” he reasoned.
But whether bees have another 20 years to spare is the question.
Farmers’ market time in Jefferson
The Greene County Farmers’ Market runs from June through September on the east side of the Greene County courthouse. The market is open Tuesdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m.
Meals are offered each week by various community organizations.
The July meal schedule:
July 2 — The Mission Team of the First United Methodist Church
July 9 — The Mission Team of the First United Methodist Church
July 16 — RSVP volunteers
July 23 — Greene County Early Learning Center
July 30 — Masons