Stung By The Plight Of The Honeybee

When the silver tips of apple buds show in the orchards around Morton, N.Y., Jim Doan takes his wife Alayne out for Chinese food in nearby Rochester. For the second-generation beekeepers, it may be the last restaurant meal for a while. As upwards of 40,000 acres of the Lake Ontario Plain fruit belt come into bloom in early May, calls from farmers for bee colonies come nonstop. The alarm clock rings at 4 a.m., and the dinner hour hovers around 10 p.m. Down the road a bit, Jim's parents, Ed and Judy, are leading a similarly hectic life.

"Farmers want their bees delivered yesterday," says Jim, 31. The rest of the year, the Doans are kept busy repairing equipment, extracting honey, and finding new markets for that honey, but pollination season is the hairy time.

Farmers have a reason for their panicked calls. Without beehives in place, the region's crops--a forest of tart and sweet cherries, pears, peaches, apples, apricots, and plums--won't fruit. Such major packers as Cadbury Schweppes, Seneca Foods, and Comstock Michigan Fruit rely on the Lake Plain's rich cornucopia. I grew up in Albion and know this region's value firsthand: In winter, I pruned apple trees; in summer, I picked alongside the migrant laborers who work their way north, from peaches in Georgia to apples and pears by blue Ontario's shore.

But good honeybees are getting harder to come by. Five years ago, New York State's bee colonies numbered 115,000. Now, there are about 55,000, estimates Roger A. Morse, professor of apiculture at Cornell University. There's a bee dearth in California, too: This year, growers had to import 400,000 colonies to pollinate a near-billion-dollar almond crop. The latest industry study estimates that, in terms of crop yield and quality, bee pollination nationwide is worth about $9.3 billion in 1985 dollars. But America's beekeepers are being stung these days--and not by their bees.

Beehives have been devastated by waves of stowaway mites imported along with plants from Asia and Europe in the '80s. Microscopic tracheal mites multiply in bees' breathing tubes and suffocate them. Larger red varroa mites feed on the bees' blood. Each winter, the Doans lose 20% of their hives--half of the casualties victims of mites.

Moreover, wild honeybees no longer help out. Cornell's Morse estimates that mites and disease have wiped out 90% of hives in hollow trees. And commercial hives have enemies other than mites: shortsighted farmers who spray such pesticides as Penncap-M and Sevin on crops near hives without later mowing ground plants whose flowers are tainted.

The biggest threat of all, however, may be the influx of Chinese honey into the U.S. market. Chinese honey imports have increased threefold since 1990, to 76 million pounds in 1993. Since the 2% U.S. import tariff is the lowest in the world, while China's 55% is the highest, the market is a one-way street. And Beijing's going price, about 40 cents a pound, is 21% below the U.S. average. "And that's free trade," scoffs Jim Doan.

INCREASED SCRUTINY. "It's like you're down and someone's kicking you," says Ed Doan, who doesn't know how much longer he can continue. "I'm 53. I don't have too many choices," he says. "I could drive a school bus or deliver papers."

Beekeepers also charge that Chinese honey is adulterated. Last year, Canada's Agriculture Ministry inspected 41 shipments of Chinese honey and found that 53.7% of them contained corn syrup in concentrations varying from 5% to 47%. But, says Nicholas Sargeantson, president of Sunland International Inc., a major honey importer based in New Canaan, Conn.: "The Chinese have done a great deal to clean up their honey." Beijing had deregulated the honey market, which had the effect of letting "everyone and his brother" export honey, says Sargeantson. But the business was reregulated in April, giving authorities more control over quality.

Meanwhile, the Food & Drug Administration has increased its scrutiny of Chinese honey because some shipments were found to contain illegal pesticide residues. Currently, shipments from seven Chinese producers are automatically detained. But the FDA has yet to collect evidence that supports charges of adulteration with corn syrup.

These concerns are put aside this bright morning as I join the Doans in one of their bee yards, a glen shaded by lindens, oaks, and maples. They're checking hives to see how the bees everwintered and if the queens are laying well.

The bees have so much pollen and nectar to gather that they ignore us. A worker bee carts orange dandelion pollen in the baskets on her hind legs. She wags her abdomen to tell other workers where the flowers are. Steady puffs of smoke from twine burning in a handheld smoker keep unoccupied bees busy. Sensing the hive is on fire, the bees go in and gorge themselves on honey.

AT EASE. A few feet away, Laura Doan, age 5, is having a picnic with her dolls. Being outdoors and having her husband and children around are what Alayne likes about the business. Benjamin, age 4, wears a tiny bee veil. "Hi, bees," he whispers through a crack in the hive before his mother shoos him away.

Ever since Jim nailed together his own hive boxes at age 7, he has been hooked on beekeeping. Bees put him through college. Alayne became a beekeeper and an accountant when she married Jim. "She's developed a real eye for bees," says Jim.

"When I first started working with bees, I wore gloves all the time," she says. "He thought I was crazy." Now at ease with the bees, Alayne points out the curving queen cells and the translucent larvae in the comb. She admires the workers. "Did you know that they never really sleep?" she asks.

The bees' humming fills the bright, cool, and uncommonly clear afternoon. The sun doesn't shine much in this part of the world, but today, you can look through a sea of white pear blossoms to the lake beyond. Jim walks into the orchard to see how his bees are flying. I hear him softly urging: "Go, bees. Go."

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