(3 of 7)
All that ended in 2006, the year CCD hit the mainstream, and Doan's hives weren't spared. That winter, when he popped the covers to check on his bees--tipped off by a fellow beekeeper who experienced one of the first documented cases of CCD--Doan found nothing. "There were hundreds of hives in the backyard and no bees in them," he says. In the years since, he has experienced repeated losses, his bees growing sick and dying. To replace lost hives, Doan needs to buy new queens and split his remaining colonies, which reduces honey production and puts more pressure on his few remaining healthy bees. Eventually it all became unsustainable. In 2013, after decades in the business, Doan gave up. He sold the 112 acres (45 hectares) he owns--land he had been saving to sell after his retirement--and plans to sell his beekeeping equipment as well, provided he can find someone to buy it. Doan is still keeping some bees in the meantime, maintaining a revenue stream while considering his options. Those options include a job at Walmart.
Doan and I walk through his backyard, which is piled high with bee boxes that would resemble filing cabinets, if filing cabinets hummed and vibrated. Doan lends me a protective jacket and a bee veil that covers my face. He walks slowly among the boxes--partly because he's a big guy and partly because bees don't appreciate fast moves--and he spreads smoke in advance, which masks the bees' alarm pheromones and keeps them calm. He opens each box and removes a few frames--the narrowly spaced scaffolds on which the bees build their honeycombs--checking to see how a new population he imported from Florida is doing. Some frames are choked with crawling bees, flowing honey and healthy brood cells, each of which contains an infant bee. But other frames seem abandoned, even the wax in the honeycomb crumbling. Doan lays these boxes--known as dead-outs--on their side.
He used to love checking on his bees. "Now it's gotten to the point where I look at the bees every few weeks, and it scares me," he says. "Will it be a good day, will they be alive, or will I just find a whole lot of junk? It depresses the hell out of me."
Doan's not alone in walking away from such unhappy work. The number of commercial beekeepers has dropped by some three-quarters over the past 15 years, and while all of them may agree that the struggle is just not worth it anymore, they differ on which of the possible causes is most to blame. Doan has settled on the neonicotinoid pesticides--and there's a strong case to be made against them.
The chemicals are used on more than 140 different crops as well as in home gardens, meaning endless chances of exposure for any insect that alights on the treated plants. Doan shows me studies of pollen samples taken from his hives that indicate the presence of dozens of chemicals, including the neonicotinoids. He has testified before Congress about the danger the chemicals pose and is involved in a lawsuit with other beekeepers and with green groups that calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend a pair of pesticides in the neonicotinoid class. "The impacts [from the pesticides] are not marginal, and they're not academic," says Peter Jenkins, a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety and a lead counsel in the suit. "They pose real threats to the viability of pollinators."