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?

The Missouri River is flooding towns in western Missouri, and Gibbons, a 30-year veteran beekeeper who at age 66 has a head of curly gray hair and a motherly nature, has come to this small bee yard to move her hives to higher ground.

Stepping into a work-worn beekeeper suit, Gibbons places a yellow headband around her forehead to keep the sweat from her eyes as she moves her bees onto the elevated plank.

Along with her son, Chris, Sharon Gibbons produces honey, which she markets to area stores under the label Gibbons Bee Farm. The Gibbonses keep roughly 125 hives scattered throughout St. Louis County. They also have another, larger operation near Columbia.

Once a gentlemanly pursuit, beekeeping is now an integral part of our industrialized agricultural system.
Once a gentlemanly pursuit, beekeeping is now an integral part of our industrialized agricultural system.
King bee: Delta Bee Company head honcho Neal Bergman.
King bee: Delta Bee Company head honcho Neal Bergman.

The family's bees had a tough winter. Now, with the numbers down and the "honey flow" about to begin, there's no time to lose.

"Last summer was a bad drought and the honey production per hive was way down," Gibbons recounts as she slides a hive onto the makeshift platform. "So when we went into winter, the bees were already stressed out. A low honey-production year keeps the queen from laying the amount of eggs that she needs to have a strong enough hive to make it through the winter."

Before last winter Gibbons maintained about 1,000 hives. She estimates that she lost 20 percent to 30 percent of her St. Louis County stock and 60 percent of the bees in her Columbia operation.

"We have yards that were totally devastated," says Gibbons, who coos over her bees as she supplies them with sugar water, calling them her "girls." "It could have been CCD that dwindled the hive, but we don't know, because we've also got mites."

In other words, it's business as usual, and the work must go on. Today Sharon and Chris Gibbons are attempting to restore the population by splitting the stronger hives in half and adding new queens purchased from a Texas breeder.

"[We're] trying to get our numbers up, so that when everything blooms the bees will be able to capitalize on the honey flow," says Chris Gibbons, who tends to the Columbia hives.

Because the late-February frost that killed the area's elm and maple blossoms deprived the Gibbons' bees of the season's first shot of nectar, mother and son must put out sugar water — literally, store-bought sugar mixed with water — as they split their hives. With nectar (or in this case sugar water) plentiful, the queens will be encouraged to lay plenty of eggs, and the hive can double or even triple in size in a few weeks.

"We need to keep that queen laying. If she stops because there's no food, then you're setting back the hive," explains Chris Gibbons. "This doesn't provide them with much food, but it's enough to get them going — and that's all we're looking for. Once they start bringing in nectar from the flowers, we'll stop feeding them."

Although Sharon Gibbons has dabbled in providing pollination services, her mainstay has always been honey. Now she says she's being approached by farmers in need of pollination services. Between last summer's drought and the winter's high mortality rate, she worries that she might not be able to get by as a beekeeper without becoming a pollinator.

"There are brokers who call me all the time. They'll take care of my bees from the time they leave my farm on the semi until they bring them back," she says. "But my experience with pollination is that the bees are not ready for the nectar flow when they come back."

As the day draws to a close, Gibbons moves on to north St. Louis County. It's coming on dusk, and as the beekeeper moves the hives, splitting them, cleaning them and rearranging them, her bees fill the air in an angry swarm.

"When the price of honey is way, way down, we can buy honey cheaper than we can produce," she says, gazing up through a cloud of bees. "Honey can be profitable — but only if we don't keep on having all of these disasters."

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