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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

Bee Witched

Apiculturist Ainít In It For the Honey

It began innocently enough. Back in the mid-’70s, Kenny Williams MAT ’72 was toiling as a substitute teacher in a Portland high school, talking to a student after class, when the student mentioned beekeeping. “I have no idea why,” Kenny says, “but it somehow really struck a chord.” As if pulled by an invisible force, he headed over to the downtown library and found himself gazing at a shelf of books on apiculture. The more he learned about bees, the more fascinated he became. Thirty years later, down on his farm in Blodgett, Oregon, all the standard puns (both pollen and appallin’) apply: he’s tapped into the buzz about beekeeping; he stays as busy as a you-know-what.

Kenny started out as an apprentice to a master beekeeper, which gave him a chance to learn the craft and build up his immunity to stings—a crucial attribute in a beekeeper. One evening, while he loaded hives into the back of a truck, his mentor slipped, and the stacked hives hit the ground, splitting apart and releasing thousands of stunned bees. Miraculously, neither man was badly hurt; they were able to flee the stunned bees and later calm the swarm with smoke.

Kenny was not deterred. Eventually he went into business on his own and soon became, like most beekeepers, too preoccupied with his finances to worry about getting stung. In Oregon, beekeepers make only a third of their income from honey. The rest comes from renting out “pollination services” to berry farmers, seed growers, and orchard owners. Kenny earns about $40 per hive of 40,000 bees that pollinate for the duration of each approximately month-long bloom. But even that meager sum was threatened by inherent vagaries, and the conventional wisdom told him to double his expense estimate and halve his income estimate for a prayer at survival.

Kenny

Kenny Williams MAT ’72

He has remained willing to truck bees to California each February for its more competitive, early growing season. He’s worked many double shifts, because bees have to be moved during the night, whereas maintenance of colony must occur when the sun is up.

On top of the financial strain, he is stung nearly every day. (With all the precise maneuvering of equipment they have to do, beekeepers can’t wear gloves, and the occasional angry bee can usually find her way through protective clothing anyway.) Fortunately, he says, it only hurts for a minute or two.

In the late ’80s, as Kenny was finally getting established, mysterious afflictions began hitting honeybees. The prevailing theory of the time blamed tracheal mites in the bees’ breathing tubes. Twenty years later, the phenomenon now known as “colony collapse disorder” has been blamed on dozens of potential suspects: parasites, viruses, fungi, and bacteria have all been implicated, although it remains unclear whether bees are dying because of a specific villain or a combination of factors.

As president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, Kenny lobbied at the state capitol for more research into the causes of colony collapse disorder. This year, his advocacy paid off with the hiring of an entomologist at Oregon State University.

The ramifications go far beyond the price of honey. Honeybees occupy a unique place in the food chain, boosting crop yields two- to fivefold due to their “flower fidelity,” which means they continue to visit a crop’s blossoms even after other pollinators have moved on to the next flowering crop. Some crops, such as citrus and almonds, are almost entirely dependent on honeybees for pollination.

When colonies collapse, farmers struggle to pollinate their crops, which stunts yield and drives up costs. “If all of the bees died tomorrow, the effect would be devastating for the quality and quantity of almost everything in your supermarket,” says Kenny.

The stakes are high for beekeepers, too. When Kenny got started, beekeepers could expect to lose an occasional hive to disease or parasites. Today, beekeepers expect about a quarter of their bees to disappear for unknown reasons, and it’s increasingly common for an entire apiary to succumb. “Who knows when our number will come up?” he wonders aloud.

Despite the headaches, Kenny is still passionate about his craft. Once you spread some of his bees’ aromatic liquor on a warm piece of toast, and taste the glistening floral sweetness for yourself, it’s not hard to understand why.

—Raymond Rendleman ’06

reed magazine logoSummer 2009