ROY NETTLEBECK’S "GIRLS" —that’s what he calls his honeybees—were dying. It wasn’t the first time he’d suffered losses. For four decades, Nettlebeck has kept hives at Tahuya River Apiaries, in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. When it came to bee-colony drama, he’d pretty much seen it all. But 2007, he says, was his worst year yet.
It was much worse than 2006, when he managed to avoid the much-buzzed-about Colony Collapse Disorder, in which half the nation’s kept bees disappeared, mostly due to viruses spread by the varroa mite. Nettlebeck escaped that epidemic using a piece of insider apiarist knowledge: Hives set up near mint plants seemed to survive varroa infiltrations. He started feeding his girls a mint-infused syrup, which essentially makes them sweat mint, masking the natural bee scent the mites depend on to reproduce. It worked; Tahuya River’s hives survived. But in 2007, Nettlebeck’s naturopathic remedy proved no match for a new strain of protozoa, a killer that prevents bees from digesting their food. Forty percent of his bees perished.
But when you look at the big picture, says Nettlebeck, mites and protozoa are not the bee business’s real problem. The true culprit, he says, is corn. “The big beekeepers are basically poisoning their own bees,” he says, referring to the corn syrup that large honey producers feed their hives. Sixty percent of all corn produced in 2007 was genetically modified with Bt, a neurotoxin designed to kill the pests that feed on it. When the insects eat corn syrup made from Bt corn, it dizzies their little bee brains, preventing them from finding their way back to the hive, breaking down their stomach lining, and leaving them ill equipped to deal with viral attacks. That obviously poses problems for the large-scale producers, but when the Bt bees start mingling with the little guys’ girls, it’s suddenly every hive keeper’s headache.
“California produces 90 percent of the world’s almonds,” says Nettlebeck. “Almonds require four beehives per acre. They’re increasing almond plantation by 1,000 acres per year, which means they need 4,000 extra beehives to pollinate the almond trees.” To make that happen, almond farmers truck in bees from all over—including Washington State. Healthy bees meet Bt-addled cousins in California, contract their viruses, and infect the rest of the hive on the trek back to Washington.
It’s not hard to see why some local beekeepers ship bees to California—pollination contracts are now close to $200 per hive, up from $45 three years ago—but Nettlebeck says under current (relatively weak) USDA standards, honeybee pimping really stings. Once one bee gets sick, they all become sick, even the good gals (like his) who stayed home in the Olympics. “But if you eat good food, you survive,” he says. He’s feeding his bees mint and lemongrass-infused syrups in the hopes that they will build up the bees’ strength enough to last through the winter of 2009.
If it’s a bad year, Nettlebeck says, we might see a lot less sweet stuff at local markets. For the time being, however, you can find plenty of Tahuya River Apiaries’ delicious raw honeys on sale at West Seattle, University District, Ballard, and Columbia City farmers markets, or visit Nettlebeck’s Web site at HiveHarvest.com.