Buzzkill

See all those little suckers? Did you know that they're an invasive species and a linchpin of modern agriculture? That they're dying off by the million and no one's sure why?

So it is that early on a dew-kissed morning in southeastern Missouri's bootheel, beekeeper Neal Bergman is hunched over the flattened front tire of a forklift. The air is still cool from the previous evening's rains, and the 300 or so hives he keeps at his compound's central bee yard outside the town of Kennett have yet to rouse for the day. They will soon, and Bergman needs to move quickly.

Bergman's outfit, Delta Bee Company, owns several of the work-worn lifts, and by noon his 8-man crew will have moved 450 hives onto area watermelon patches. The faster they can do it, the less time the bees will have to awaken, get angry and sting.

"The way I look at it," says Bergman, a tall, broad-faced man whose voice retains the flattened vowels of his Minnesota heritage, "you're going into a houseful of women and you're rearranging the furniture. So when you're going in there, you're literally going into a hornet's nest."

There's another reason for Bergman's haste: Once the bees wake up, the workers will head into the field to do what Bergman employs them to do: forage for nectar and pollinate. Move the hives while the workers are away, and they won't be able to find the hive when they return with nectar. If left behind, the bees are likely to die of exposure.

Having changed the tire, Bergman straps himself into his Ford flatbed truck. One by one his crew departs, a circuitous single-file parade of five flatbeds through the region's patchwork of cotton and watermelon fields.

A few minutes later, the crew arrives at Delta Bee's main holding yard, where it is met by a bee-stung and swollen-teated Jack Russell terrier tiptoeing nervously through the moist morning grass.

It's at this central yard that the beekeeper consolidates his hives before shipping them out to fields whose owners pay him to pollinate everything from apples to zucchini. Bergman keeps roughly six hundred of the two-foot-by-two-foot wooden boxes at his central yard. Each hive is equipped with removable honeycomb frames, which allow Bergman control of the hives' strength, removing bees as necessary. The bee yard is studded with several 35-gallon plastic barrels brimming with high-fructose corn syrup used to "slop feed" the bees.

The yard's low-frequency buzz, ornamented by the morning song of cardinals, is quickly doused by the forklifts' roar. As Bergman's rig carves tread marks into the moist ground, his crew moves from hive to hive, perfuming the air with smokers, bellows-like canisters that belch smoke from smoldering pine needles to mollify the bees. The workers, dressed identically in white beekeeper suits, lend the operation a vaguely extraterrestrial quality.

Bergman, on the other hand, wears jeans and a button-down denim shirt with a Sue Bee Honey logo, a nod to the cooperative that buys most of his product. He has covered his head with a veil for protection, but otherwise Bergman leaves himself open to the elements as he expertly pilots the forklift, scooping the wood-sided hives six at a time and dropping them on the flatbed.

The son of Minnesota dairy farmers, Bergman now runs Missouri's largest beekeeping operation. He keeps an active stock of 8,000 hives, each of which can hold as many as 60,000 bees. He has a grain-silo-size tower filled with high-fructose corn syrup, which he buys by the tanker load as supplemental feed. This past February Bergman loaded 3,000 hives onto tractor-trailers bound for the California almond blossom.

"These bees are already world travelers. They've been to California for almonds, and they went up to Illinois for apple pollination," says Bergman. "This last year the [almond] rate was anywhere from $120 per hive to $160 per hive. That sounds great, but by the time you take out your broker fee for placing them, and for transportation — it's about $10,000 per semi — it gets pretty costly."

Expenses notwithstanding, the California almond blossom is by far the most important season for a migratory beekeeper like Bergman. When the almond trees, all 420,000 acres of them, begin to bloom in February, beekeepers from across the United States load their product onto flatbed tractor-trailers and ship the bees west. Each individual blossom must be pollinated, and collectively the almond growers need upward of one million bee colonies to accomplish the task. For beekeepers like Bergman, it represents the year's biggest payday. But it comes with its attendant perils.

"You put a hive of bees on a truck and run it 2,000 miles, you'll put that hive in extreme elements. They may experience anything from sub-freezing temperatures to temperatures over 100 degrees," says Bergman, who each January begins preparing his bees for the journey. "When we send the bees out there, we give them a shot of feed first and a protein supplement. Then we give them an external mite treatment. We give them an internal mite treatment. We give them something for nosema [a digestive problem], and we give them an antibiotic. We give that to them all at once, so when they head out there they have the whole drugstore thrown at them."

They need it. From a bee's perspective, pulling hives together from around the country is not unlike bringing together a million midsize cities and commingling their populations for a month. If one of those towns is experiencing a plague, there's bound to be some cross-infection.

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