There was a moment last year when beekeeper Jim Doan was ready to concede defeat. He stood in the kitchen of his rural New York home, holding the phone to his ear. Through the window, he could see the frigid January evening settling on the 112-acre farm he’d just been forced to sell two weeks earlier. On the other end of the line, his wife’s voice was matter-of-fact: “Jimmy, I just want to say I’m sorry, but the bees are dead.”
By then, Doan was used to taking in bad news. After all, this was long after the summer of 2006, when he had first started noticing that his bees were acting oddly: not laying eggs or going queenless or inexplicably trying to make multiple queens. It was long after the day when he’d gone out to check his bee yard and discovered that of the 5,600 hives he kept at the time, all but 600 were empty. And it was long after he’d learned back in 2007 that he was not alone, that beekeepers all around the country, and even the world, were finding that their bees had not just died but had actually vanished, a phenomenon that was eventually named colony collapse disorder and heralded as proof of the fast-approaching End of Days by evangelicals and environmentalists alike. Theories abounded about what was causing CCD. Were bees, the most hardworking and selfless of creatures, being called up to heaven before the rest of us? Were they victims of a Russian plot? Of cellphone interference? Of UV light? Were they the “canary in the coal mine,” as the Obama administration suggested, signaling the degradation of the natural world at the hands of man? Possibly. Probably. No one knew.
Even to Doan, at the epicenter of the crisis, none of it had made a lick of sense. As a third-generation beekeeper, he and his family had been running bees since the 1950s, and it had been good money; in the 1980s, a thousand hives could earn a beekeeper between $65,000 and $70,000 a year in honey sales alone, not to mention the cash coming in from leasing hives out to farmers to help pollinate their fields. But more than that, it was a way of life that suited Doan. He’d gotten his first hive in 1968, at the age of five, with $15 he’d borrowed from his parents. He paid his way through college with the 150 hives he owned by then, coming home to tend them on the weekends. He was fascinated by the industrious insects. “It’s just that they are such interesting creatures to watch on a daily basis,” he says. “If you spend any time with bees, you develop a passion for them.”