What is a honeybee chop shop, and why do they exist? As pollinators, honeybees are essential to bringing most of the food we eat to our tables, and their use in large-scale commercial farming is a very expensive and lucrative process. Writer Rene Ebersole and honeybee farmer Joe Romance talk with us about the shady business of stealing bees.
PETER GWIN (HOST): It’s bad enough when someone steals from you. It’s even worse when they light the thing they stole on fire.
JOE ROMANCE (BEEKEEPER): They had a burn pile, it was just glowing red hot. It was about three feet high.
GWIN: But that’s what happened to Joe Romance. He’s a commercial beekeeper in California and he says, one day he got a call from a friend.
ROMANCE: He says, ‘Hey Joe, there's some guys that are new in town and I went to see who they were and I saw some of your green pallets and, in the back, kind of tucked away.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I just had some stolen.’
GWIN: The green pallets had been stolen and so had the wooden bee boxes that sit on top of them. Joe’s friend gave him the address of where he might find them and when he pulled up to the house --
ROMANCE: They were having a party. Kids and a jumpy gym and everything.
GWIN: It was loud. There was music, people, food and behind the house -- that’s where he saw the flames. And it was in that burn pile that he recognized remnants of his beeboxes.
ROMANCE: When I saw them in the yard, I knew that that was them. And I know that was all our old frames.
GWIN: And the bees? Who knows where they were. This was like a honeybee chop shop. Joe was fuming.
ROMANCE: You're right in the lion's den. You're surrounded by people that just stole a lot of money from you and you’ve gotta stay calm.
GWIN: Joe had had bees stolen before. He knew by now, his bees were probably making money for someone else. He called the cops and they investigated, but finding stolen bees is a tricky process. And this was right before almond season, when there’s a lot of demand for bees. Each hive was probably worth $200 or more.
Joe was lucky this time because this theft didn’t put him out of business. But he says stealing bees can really wreck a beekeeper’s business.
ROMANCE: You know, a farmer -- if he gets nuts stolen, he still has the farm. When you get your bees stolen, they just stole everything. They stole the farm and everything, basically. Because that’s all of it.
GWIN: What happened to Joe isn’t unusual. It’s a shady side of the colossal system that puts food on our plates.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic.
A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo — and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
Today: how honeybee chop shops are just the beginning of a much stranger story about the food we eat.
RENE EBERSOLE (WRITER): The first thought is why? Why would anyone want to steal bees? Like, that sounds like a really painful idea.
GWIN: Yes, seriously. Rene Ebersole is a science writer. She investigated the theft of bees for National Geographic. She says hive theft is something that keeps beekeepers up at night.
EBERSOLE: One guy said to me, ‘you know, every time I go into the into the orchard area or I go out to get my bees from the from the yard, I just sort of hold my breath to see, you know, hoping to see that they're there.’
GWIN: And when they’re missing, it’s because they were taken by someone who knows what they’re doing.
EBERSOLE: You know, anybody who knows how to take care of bees could potentially steal them. But that's the thing. It's like, it's always an inside job. You have to be a beekeeper to steal bees.
GWIN: So what’s going on here? Why would beekeepers steal bees?
ANAND VARMA (PHOTOGRAPHER): We’ve become so dependent on these honeybees to pollinate our crops, to help us raise food.
GWIN: Anand Varma is a science photographer, but not just any science photographer. He’s the kind of guy who figures out how to photograph technically challenging subjects -- like the time he caught a hummingbird’s lightning-quick tongue sipping nectar.
And a few years back, Anand started keeping bees. His plan was to take intimate portraits of their lives for National Geographic. More on that later.
And in the process of taking those photographs, he learned a lot about beekeeping.
VARMA: We can grow food in ways, in higher quantities than we've ever been able to before. But anything in the system goes wrong and there's not really a good backup plan.
GWIN: And that’s one of the main reasons people might steal bees. Because bees are a linchpin to the industry that feeds us.
VARMA: Nothing is as simple as it first seems and it's worth digging in to the complicated bits.
GWIN: Okay, so let’s do that. Let’s dig in. Back to writer Rene Ebersole.
EBERSOLE: The almond growers are desperate for the honeybees.
GWIN: Rene says to understand our complicated relationship with honeybees, you first have to know about one of California’s most profitable crops: almonds.
EBERSOLE: Yeah, if you look out across the valley there's just, it's this endless grid of almond trees for as far as you can see.
GWIN: Almonds aren’t even native to California, but the state produces 80% of the world's supply and nearly all of the almonds sold in the United States.
EBERSOLE: When I was there, I saw people, you know, ripping out their vineyards where they grow raisin grapes and you know they're planting new orchards, almond orchards as quickly as they can.
GWIN: Farmers rely on bees to pollinate the almond trees, but there’s a problem.
EBERSOLE: You just don't find a lot of native bees in the area.
GWIN: You don’t find native bees because the flowers they like to eat have been removed to plant almond trees. And almond trees only bloom for a couple weeks in the winter.
EBERSOLE: For that one period of time when there's almonds, there's some food. But the rest of the time it's like a desert for them.
GWIN: So almond farmers need a work around. Enter the commercial beekeepers.
EBERSOLE: If you sit at the border in California in late January, you'll see just one semi-truck after another coming across the border there with stacks and stacks of bee boxes.
GWIN: We’re talking about bee caravans hauling billions of insects. The hives come from as far away as Miami.
EBERSOLE: You see them stacked and you see like, they have a sort of a netting over top of them You know, prevents the bees from getting out and stinging someone at the at the rest stop.
GWIN: And while it may seem dangerous to ride around with such volatile cargo, to the people involved, it’s worth the risk.
JERRY HAYES (BEEKEEPER): When you walk into your big box or Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or whoever. And you walk into this grocery store, what's the first thing you see? It’s, it's not the toilet paper aisle or the cleaning supply aisle. It's always the produce section, isn't it?
GWIN: Jerry Hayes is an apiarist. That’s a fancy word for beekeeper. He was the head apiarist for the state of Florida, a state that relies on honeybees for more than four billion dollars’ worth of crops.
Jerry says the produce section is the most appealing section in the grocery story because color, odor and nutrition are concentrated there.
HAYES: And that's because of the huge production value that honeybees bring with them.
GWIN: So it’s not just almonds that honeybees are pollinating. No, that’s just the beginning of their road trip.
EBERSOLE: It starts with almonds in February.
HAYES: And then they go north into Washington, Oregon for apples and peaches and berries.
EBERSOLE: But then they might be pollinating avocados a couple months later.
HAYES: And then maybe back to the east coast for well, you know, oranges or follow spring north, winding up with cranberries.
EBERSOLE: They just kind of follow the bloom as you know as the season gets going.
HAYES: All those fruits, nuts, and vegetables you see in the produce section when you walk into the grocery store have had a honeybee associated with them to move that pollen, to produce that fruit, nut or vegetable. And even spinach and lettuce and kale, we don't think – well, gee whiz, you know honey bees don't produce that well. Yeah, they kind of do, because somebody has to grow those.
These will flower to produce a seed, so that seed can be sold to somebody who's going to grow the lettuce or the kale or the spinach. So, approximately a food worth about 20 billion dollars in the United States is at the whim of honeybees and their beekeepers.
GWIN: So basically, bees are breathing, buzzing gold. They’re valuable because of how we grow apples, oranges, avocados, berries and a lot of other food here in the United States. We rely on monoculture.
EBERSOLE: Monoculture is when you're growing one crop for a large, a large amount of land. You know, thousands of acres planted one with one individual crop that's a large-scale monoculture.
GWIN: It’s an extremely efficient way to produce food cheaply. But clearing swaths of land for one crop also clears out the native pollinators -- like butterflies, moths and other kinds of wild bees.
So farmers enlist the European honeybee to do the work. But relying on one species to pollinate that much food is super risky.
HAYES: What do you do if a third of your food comes from honeybee pollination and these bees have to be healthy and well?
GWIN: Jerry has been in the beekeeping industry for 35 years. He’s an expert on honeybee health. He started to worry about sick bees back in the mid-2000s.
HAYES: I was getting phone calls from one beekeeper in particular telling me that his bees were gone. They weren't like dead on the ground or dead in the bottom of the hive. They were just gone.
GWIN: This wasn’t a bee theft. It was like the bees had just vanished.
HAYES: I remember sitting on my bedroom floor one night in Florida talking to colleagues at university and government and USDA and what have you about this because they were starting to get similar phone calls. We had no earthly idea what was going on.
GWIN: But they knew it was happening in several places and they were worried it could be a big problem for agriculture. They needed money to study it, so in order to attract funding, they gave the problem a name.
HAYES: We thought we would call it colony collapse disorder.
GWIN: Pretty catchy, right?
HAYES: We knew that most people wouldn't pay attention to this anyway and this would be gone in 18 months like everything else in the beekeeping industry.
GWIN: But they had miscalculated.
HAYES: That was absolutely wrong. The media got a hold of it. People got attention to it and it really drove attention of honeybees as perhaps the canary in the coal mine somehow relating what might be going on in the environment. It got attention above and beyond whatever we had ever thought it would.
GWIN: So Jerry says most people assumed that pesticides were to blame for colony collapse disorder. But there was another major culprit.
HAYES: And we know it's primarily this huge parasite called the varroa mite.
GWIN: And this thing is massive. I mean, if you’re a bee.
HAYES: Let's say that, Peter, you have a parasite on you the size of a rat. Proportionately, that's how large a varroa mite is to a honeybee's body.
GWIN: The varroa mite hails from Asia. And the bees we use to pollinate our food -- European honeybees -- they’re basically defenseless against it.
HAYES: And our European genetically based honeybees had not evolved or developed along with this parasite in order to learn how to control it. So it's like any other parasite on any other livestock. When you have something new, that livestock always dies because they're not adapted to it.
GWIN: Honeybees in other places, like in Asia and Africa, have adapted to the varroa mite. They’ve developed resistance to the mites, but for one reason or another, they’re not the best candidates for mass pollination. Only the European honeybee can be counted on for that job.
But because European honeybees don’t have a natural defense, the mites attack their immune system.
HAYES: You know when a mosquito bites you they spit into you so it stops your immune system from closing off that feeding site and, but that's how you might get malaria or Zika, and what have you. Well, the varroa mite does the same thing with, with honeybees when it bites them.
GWIN: With a compromised immune system, the bees are vulnerable to viruses.
And the varroa mite is also a vector for several debilitating bee viruses.
HAYES: And so these viruses will make the honeybee sick.
GWIN: And when one honeybee gets sick, it’s not long before the entire hive is infected. What beekeepers didn’t know back in the mid-2000s is that sick bees also flee. That’s the collapse part of colony collapse.
HAYES: And then the whole colony kind of decreases in population and eventually dies if they’re not treated for this varroa mite.
GWIN: Ever since the varroa mite problem was discovered in commercial bees, beekeepers have been scrambling to keep up, spraying their bees with varroacides to keep the mites at bay.
Jerry says this needs to be a mandatory part of beekeeping, even though sometimes he gets pushback from beekeepers who worry about the impact of pesticides.
HAYES: Well, let me ask you this: what happens if we don't? Do you want to spend a dollar for an apple? Do you want to spend two dollars for a head of lettuce? Do you want to you know spend 4.50 a piece for a peach? That's the question.
VARNA: It’s really the kind of tradeoffs that we have made in our choices of how to grow food in the past century or so.
GWIN: Science photographer Anand Varma.
VARMA: We became so reliant on this one species because it was so convenient to be able to put millions of bees on a truck and move them to almond orchards and cherry orchards and to grow food in this really efficient way. But we kind of made a tradeoff in making more and more intensive ways of growing food. It's become less and less resilient to disturbances.
GWIN: The thing you have to know about Anand is that when he gets an assignment from National Geographic he goes all in. Like a method actor. So what does a method photographer do when he’s assigned to a honeybee story? He gets his own hive.
VARMA: So I borrowed my friend's Miata because that's the only car I had available. Not the ideal car for transporting camera equipment and beehives but it's what I had.
GWIN: His friend Jacob came with him. He thought it was funny and wanted to film the whole thing.
VARMA: And so then it was, it was time to drive home with these bees. And that's when it kind of dawned on Jacob that there's really no other place to put this beehive except for his lap. and he said you know I'm allergic to bees right. I was like, don’t worry. You know, we don't have that far to go. I'll drive carefully.
GWIN: Miraculously, they made it back without a sting. But it was winter and the bees weren’t doing so well. They needed to be kept warm. So initially, Anand set up the bees inside his house.
VARMA: I maybe should have asked my landlord but he doesn't have to know.
GWIN: He says his roommates were cool with it.
VARMA: At this point, they've gotten pretty used to it. I mean I've had like, you know, parasitic worms in the fridge and all kinds of wacky critters for past projects.
GWIN: And just like in past projects, Anand spent a lot of time staring at the bees.
VARMA: So I could just sit there all day and watch these honeybees running around, collecting food, raising babies, and interacting with each other, communicating with each other.
GWIN: He also did a lot of research.
VARMA: Well, I ended up photographing the story in a series of labs across the country to show these experiments that scientists were doing to understand bees. But it was having these bees in the hive and my, my home that kind of trained me to look at them in a new way and to think about them in a new way.
GWIN: He says it didn’t make sense to take portraits of individual honeybees because it’s all about the hive.
VARMA: What's so remarkable about honeybees is they live in these really complex social groups. You know, there's tens of thousands of bees in a single colony. And what that means is that we've kind of hijacked that social system and used it for our own needs.
GWIN: And in the process, we’ve basically domesticated the European honeybee.
VARMA: And at least in the US they've become reliant on us. You know, they need us to help fight these mites and to maintain the numbers that are that are out there.
GWIN: So we’re mutually dependent -- but Anand says, not equally dependent.
VARMA: We need them a lot more than they need us, to be honest.
GWIN: And those needs -- it just takes one look in our kitchen cabinets and fridges to understand. Beekeepers like Joe Romance rely on the honeybee for their livelihood. Farmers need them to pollinate their crops. And we need them to put food on our tables.
So what might seem like a very natural process -- a honeybee pollinating a tree that grows, say, almonds -- is actually a much more carefully orchestrated system.
VARNA: For me, the beauty is in the complexity. It's really where the most important lessons lie.
GWIN: And one of the important lessons is that the honeybee is not on a path to extinction.
VARNA: It has all kinds of tools to evolve resistance to parasites and to, and to solve some of the problems that we're throwing at it.
GWIN: Our reliance on monoculture means we can’t wait for evolution to strengthen European honeybees. And that could be a big flaw in our food system, if we don’t carefully manage this important relationship we have with the European honeybee.
Because if we don’t, you’ve got to ask yourself -- how much are you willing to pay for that fresh peach in the produce aisle?
To learn more about honeybees -- check out our show notes. You gotta see Anand’s amazing time lapse video of honeybees being born.
And while you’re there, be sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. It really helps other listeners find us.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Robin Miniter, Emily Ochsenschlager, Kristen Clark, Brian Gutierrez, and Jacob Pinter.
Our editors are Ibby Capewto and Casey Miner.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Nick Anderson, Devin Ocampo and Interface Media Group.
Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media, Hannah Nordhaus, Kaitlin Benz, Christina Lopez, Brandi Howell and Derrick Clements.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson manages our podcast team and Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.
I’m your host, Peter Gwin.
We all here want to really thank you for listening to this first season of Overheard. It’s been a lot of fun to put together, but we’re going to take a little break and we’ll be back with even more wild and amazing stories.
See y’all soon.