Buzzing Bliss

While bees die off around the world, Southern Arizona's bees so far seem to be doing just fine

While the rest of the country frets over a dive in the honeybee population due to colony collapse disorder--a mysterious phenomenon causing entire hives of bees to disappear--most Arizona bees seem to be doing just fine.

"They're just bees being bees," said Dee Lusby, who has 900 organic hives scattered between Benson and Sasabe, as she nudged a cluster of bees as though she were petting a kitten. "They have no CCD, not that I can see."

Beekeepers as far as Europe are reaching out for answers as their bees die. Some hives in neighboring Nevada and California are having trouble, too.

The cause of CCD remains a big mystery. CCD has been blamed on everything from mites, to fungus, to pesticides to cell-phone frequencies. There's even a bee "rapture" theory, in which all the good bees go directly to heaven.

"Everybody's in utter panic," said Carl Olson, a local entomologist. "They're looking for just one answer, and there isn't one."

Lusby's operation is simple: Each morning, she hops in her truck and drives from hive to hive, usually racking up about 150 miles each day.

She sets out hives for bees to swarm to and live in. They simply show up and start making honey for her.

Using a smoker--a metal can in which she lights wood chips on fire and blows smoke out of a spout--she quiets the bees so she can safely check the hive and, if necessary, take the honey. It's definitely the old-school way of doing things, but it seems to work for her.

It's no mystery to Lusby why her bees have escaped CCD.

"It's enlarged bees; it's factory farming, chemicals, artificial feeds, sugars, pollens, insemination and drugs," said Lusby. "I never bought into this model they all went for. Unfortunately, I was raised old style, with principles. Not many people are around like that anymore."

Lusby treats her bees with love, talking to them as one might expect the 60-year-old woman to talk to grandkids. "They're animals, just like anything else," she said. "How'd you like it if they fed you artificial foods and covered you in chemicals?"

Breeding programs that started in the 1930s have resulted in bees that are 40 to 60 percent larger than their natural size, Lusby said. Aside from that, the methods that large-scale beekeepers use are wiping out the hives, she claimed.

Some theories for the bee die-off are easier to debunk than others.

"The reason we're not having CCD problems is we don't have much of a big bee industry," Olson said. "Nobody knows (why bees are dying), and nobody's telling, but since when does the government tell us crap?"

Infestations of varroa mites--parasites that hit bee populations hard a few years back--are one of the things being blamed. The tiny mites climb into hives and chew the caps off of brooding combs, eating the larvae inside. But mites don't seem to be the answer this time, since large-scale infestations would be obvious, Olson said.

Olson said one reasonable theory involves pesticides; some pesticides have been shown to cause memory loss. The bees leave their hives, never to return, possibly because they forgot where their hives are, Olson said.

Meanwhile, some are speculating that Arizona's bees are doing well because they're different: Perhaps the dreaded Africanized killer bees have fully infiltrated Arizona's bee stock.

Reed Booth, better known as the Killer Bee Guy, specializes in killer-bee removal and honey products. When folks in Cochise County find that bees have built hives too close to their homes, they call Booth to take care of them.

"I take the money and take the honey," Booth said.

He says that whatever is killing bees elsewhere might not be affecting Arizona bees because the mostly Africanized population is stronger than the European bee population, which was bred for docility.

Booth said that the Africanized bees were intentionally crossed with notoriously sickly European bees to make them hardier. In the event of a nuclear war, he predicts only cockroaches and killer bees will survive.

"Every couple years, something comes along and wipes out the European bee population," Booth said. "It seems like when the wind blows, they get sick. The Africanized bees don't seem to be affected by it. They're definitely coming back to the hives, swarming around, happier than hell."

As for the cell-phone theory?

"That sounds like a bunch of caca to me," Booth said.