Saving honeybees, one hive at a time

On a 102-degree afternoon in Wichita, Bill Vinduska pulled on his beekeeper suit and raised himself 25 feet in a hydraulic lift, to the eaves under the clubhouse roof at L.W. Clapp Municipal Golf Course.

When you’re trying to help save the world, you sometimes get stung, and sweaty. “There are days I just don’t want to do this anymore,” Vinduska said.

Vinduska would sweat for the next four hours.

To slip into the suit, he’d taken off his shirt, exposing the tattoos: a heavy-link chain encircling his neck. Inside the loop, on Vinduska’s chest, lies a red heart wrapped in thorns. It was about 120 degrees under the eaves.

The tats, the shaved head, sweatband and long beard may look formidable and off-putting, but Kansas bee people say Vinduska is one of the better mentors around — hard-working, respectful and smart.

And they say he’s one of the few people trying to save the honeybees rather than one of the many killing them off.

If he does help save them, they say, he may end up saving all of us too.

A catastrophic loss

We are killing off the honeybee, bee people say. We do so at our own great peril.

Randy Verhoek, the Texan who leads the American Honey Producers Association as president, said, “The losses we are suffering are simply not sustainable.”

Beekeepers, who truck billions of bees all over the country to pollinate our fruits, nuts and vegetables, have lost nearly 40 percent of their hives each summer in recent years, Verhoek said, a catastrophic loss. Bees are dying in the wild, too.

Jerry Brown, a third-generation beekeeper in Haddam, Kan., used to manage 4,000 hives, but he’s down to 600, mostly because of colony collapse disorder. Verhoek manages 20,000 hives, and with 50,000 or so bees in every hive, that means he owns a billion bees. He loses millions of them every year.

The EPA is worried. The Department of Agriculture is worried. Scientists and bee farmers say honeybees help feed the world. If the bees die off, Brown said, we will eat nothing but lettuce and cereal and stringy free-range meat. Even the tender beef we eat comes indirectly from bees: They help pollinate the alfalfa that feeds cows.

Bees are part of God’s creation and deserve more respect, said Rocky Schmied, a Wichita beekeeper who admires Bill Vinduska.

“I am a Christian, and every time I see honeybees at work it is one more reason to believe in a creator,” he said. “There are so many flowers, all of whom produce nectar at different times of the day, and yet the bees know what flowers to go to when. They navigate back home from wherever they are. They communicate. They work together. I sit there watching sometimes and am amazed at what’s going on in those little tiny brains.”

Angry bees

Vinduska vacuumed hundreds of bees off the shingles, the vacuum hose leading into a containment box. He sheered shingles off with a nail-puller, shingles clattering down. Clubhouse people had called after seeing bees grouped on the roof.

“I wonder what the golfers would’ve thought if they’d known there’s thousands of bees just above their heads,” said Vinduska’s wife, Candy, while watching her husband at work.

There were about 40,000 wild bees in the roof seam. Sometimes, Bill Vinduska said, they find hives that big inside people’s houses. The last removal he and Candy had done before this one was in a west Wichita apartment — inside somebody’s closet.

Bees began circling Bill’s hooded head.

He cut a hole through plywood. Watching from below, Candy said she had no idea how angry Bill was about to make the bees. “Sometimes they’re nice,” he had said. “And sometimes not.”

What’s killing the bees?

Many scientists since 2006 have said no one knows what’s killing the bees, but Vinduska and Brown and Verhoek say that’s not really true. They all say the culprits include bee viruses, a parasitic mite called the Varroa destructor, and several varieties of clueless human beings.

Farmers hose down their pastures and fields with pesticides. Bees bring home the pesticides and die. Big bee operations complain about this publicly, but Bill and Candy say the big bee operations do some harm themselves.

The beekeepers truck billions of bees all over the country, 500 hives to a semi-truck load every spring and summer, setting out hives to pollinate the almond trees in California, and vegetable and fruit farms everywhere else. A beekeeper can collect anywhere from $50 to $150 to $180 per hive to deliver the bees for pollination.

“Those big farming operations are mono-cultures — not enough variety in nutrients,” Bill Vinduska had said. “So the bees become stressed, their diet isn’t good. Makes them vulnerable.”

Brown said Vinduska is right. When the beekeepers crowd thousands of hives in one valley, “it creates the same thing you’d do if you crowded a bunch of humans together in one brothel. Everybody gets every pest, and every communicable disease.”

Verhoek said county road crews spray all the flowers and weeds in ditches every year now, killing off bee food. And we pave over or plow up every acre these days, he said.

“And yet some people think we honey producers are just concerned about our honey,” he said.

A ‘sticky mess’

As Vinduska cut with the saw, a gob of bright syrupy gold appeared in the cut, and began to ooze downward. It flowed lazily, sparkling in the lowering sun that baked him inside the bee suit. He kept cutting.

A golfer wearing a straw hat and shorts drove up in a cart.

“What the …!” he exclaimed. He saw roof shingles falling like autumn leaves, a man in a moon suit 25 feet up, and honeybees lazily circling his hooded head. The golfer must have seen the gob of wild honey, too, because he walked over to Candy. “Hey,” he said. “Can I have some of that?”

“Sure,” she said. “Bring us a plate.” But she grinned after he walked away. “I wouldn’t want any of that. It’s a sticky mess, and you don’t know whether anybody’s sprayed the hive.”

Candy says she sometimes has to hold her tongue. People can do what they want with their own property, she said. But she knows how vulnerable the bees are, though people are terrified of them. They spray them as though they are wasps.

Under the roof, Bill had cut out a 5-foot section of roofing plywood.

He pulled it away.

Underneath, now exposed to sunlight, were tens of thousands of bees, acting sleepy and docile. They walked around on a 5-foot-long yellow-gold wedge of wax honeycomb, filled with brown honey, and darker material, at one end, which was where the queen laid her eggs and the hive raised the baby bee larvae.

They are such vulnerable creatures, Candy said. “People have no idea.”

A bee experiment

When they remove a wild hive like this one, Bill and Candy take it home to try to preserve it. They are by no means the only people trying to save the honeybee. Nearly every beekeeper nowadays is reading, Googling reports, trying to save bees one hive at a time.

Bill and Candy own 200 hives now, housing them at their farm near Marion and on property Candy owns in Oklahoma.

Six years ago Bill began an experiment that continues to this day.

To kill the varroa mite that has killed so many bees, scientists came up with a pesticide that literally killed a bug living on a bug. It was a fine piece of work. But it didn’t last.

Varroa mites got creative, genetically. The pesticide would kill off maybe 99 percent of the mites, but the surviving 1 percent developed a resistance to pesticide. Then the next year, pesticide killed only 98 percent of the mites.

All they did in the end was create a resistant varroa mite.

Bill six years ago stopped using pesticide or any other chemicals in his hives.

“I lost big,” he said. “About 35 percent.”

He did the same thing the next year. “I lost 33 percent. The next year, 25 percent. And so on.”

He let nature take its course. And the bees began developing an increasing ability to survive the mites. He and Candy work hard at this. They grow clover for the bees on their farm. He said other beekeepers are adopting chemical-free methods and that it works.

Building genetic strength

In June, Bill and Candy studied “queen rearing” at a workshop at the University of Nebraska. Because queens determine the genetics — and therefore the strength — of an entire hive, learning how to replicate good queens means they can replicate stronger hives, one hive at a time.

Brown said that’s the kind of work that might save the bees. Other beekeepers, including himself, are doing variations of the same thing. A few years back, he donated 500 hives to scientists to do the same kind of work, building genetic strength. Out of 500 hives, only 20 survived, he said. But they learned things.

Candy said she didn’t think criticizing or lashing out at the Monsantos of the world was a good idea. Instead, she said, bee people ought to do what they can to educate and persuade. If they are approached the right way, the chemical companies might find solutions, she said.

Dealing with mites is one thing, Brown and Verhoek said. Dealing with humans is another.

A hobby, business and more

At Bill’s farm in Marion County, he and Candy rode a four-wheeler to the 40 hives he keeps in the shade a few hundred yards south of his home. After he shut off his engine, he could hear a low, steady, rumbling hum, from hundreds of thousands of bees busy inside the hive boxes a few yards away. The air was thick with bees coming and going.

Bill used to run the Bullseye shooting range in east Wichita, but about 15 years ago he got a notion to face one of his great fears. Bees scared him half to death, so he became a beekeeper, getting stung, getting tired and sweaty, getting stung some more.

The first time he set down his first hive on the ground when he got started, he said, he pulled the tape off the opening and ran like a scared little boy. But after that, the hobby became a business, and the business, when the bees became endangered, became something more profound.

He and Candy walked up to one of the hive boxes. They’d left the bee suits in the bed of the four-wheeler, and walked up to the box wearing shorts and T-shirts; Bill also wore a cowboy hat.

Bill removed bricks holding down the hive box lid, then slowly pulled the lid off, exposing thousands of honeybees, who ignored him and kept working around the golden yellow honeycombs they were making in the squares inside the box.

Bill leaned in, looked down inside the hive.

“Hello, girls,” he said.