There is a bee twiddling its legs on the moonlit dashboard of Bill Crawford’s pickup. I tell him we’ve got a straggler before it crawls under a stack of stained papers. There are roughly 4 million more in the back. He is not even slightly concerned.
“There’s probably bees all over. Inside the truck, outside the truck,” he says, eyes scanning the dim country road ahead. “You’re just as liable to get stung in here as you are outside.”
Crawford is a bee man. More than once, he refers to what we’re doing—driving a load of 80 honeybee colonies from western Massachusetts to a wild blueberry farm in central New Hampshire—as “haulin’ bees.” He is active behind the wheel, but he is not gung-ho. When the road bends, he slows down. On the highway he drives the speed limit.
“One thing that’s different haulin’ bees,” he cautions, “you got a higher center of gravity, so you don’t really want to take too tight of turns.”
The truck is a white Ford F-150 with the printed image of a smiling, anthropomorphic bee on the side and more than 171,000 miles on the odometer. The floors are coated in dried mud. Crawford drinks a Cherry Coke and owns both a flip phone and iPad.
He transports his bees at night so that none of them flutter away. They fly only in the daylight, but Crawford still covers the entire load with one big plastic tarp, fastening it with wooden planks and cargo straps. They are stored for most of the year in one of his beeyards near Springfield. When Crawford readies the bees for transport, it looks like some brand of outlandish NASA training: He and his staff, clad in full, graying bee suits, stack hives that resemble office cabinets from a forklift amid a cloud of soothing smoke and darting yellow fuzz.
He considers the North American black bear to be his sworn enemy. Each of his bee hubs is surrounded by electric fences. In total, Crawford owns around 3,200 colonies, equivalent to upward of 150 million bees. He is one of thousands of commercial migratory beekeepers in the United States. They are the phantom backbone of our agricultural system: The bees pollinate the crops; the beekeepers shuttle them from field to field, coast to coast.
They directly contribute to a third of America’s food: apples, peaches, lettuce, squashes, melons, broccoli, cranberries, tree nuts, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, plums, clementines, tangerines, sunflowers, pumpkins, alfalfa for your beef, and guar for your processed foods. Ninety-eight percent of organic vitamin C sources, 70 percent of vitamin A, and 74 percent of lipids; $17 billion worth of crops annually from honeybee pollination alone. The demand for their services has tripled in the past 50 years and shows no signs of abating.
The problem is they die. You have probably heard this. The number of colonies in the U.S.—2.7 million—is less than half what it was at the midpoint of the 20th century, and it has remained flat since the early 2000s. Virtually every year for the past two decades, U.S. beekeepers are tasked with replacing the third or more of their stock that perish after pollinating the very crops that required the bees in the first place. It is a shell game with titanic stakes. (In other words, it’s very American.) It works how it works because we made it to. This you may not have heard.
The bee-industrial complex is a quagmire linked to antiquity and the modern world. People have harnessed bees for about as long as they’ve harnessed anything at all. They are mentioned in the ancient cuneiform writings of Sumeria and Babylonia. They were domesticated for the Egyptian pharaohs by 2400 BCE. Early Roman naturalists recorded witnessing villages in northern Italy where “they place their hives on ships and take them during the night about five miles up the river” to access new fields of flowers.
“That Christmas puppy syndrome happens with honeybees. And there’s not much I can do about it other than try to impress upon the people who take my class that it is a responsibility.” —Andrew Coté
More than one classical dignitary died abroad and had their bodies preserved in nothing but honey: Agesilaus of Sparta, the philosopher Democritus, Alexander the Great. The Greeks and Romans valued some wild honeys as potential cures for madness. In Europe bees were lobbed on the battlefield at Swedish knights by English infantry. During World War I the Germans rigged trenches with them.
The downward spiral in America began at the beginning of the 20th century, when agriculture started to consolidate and commercialize around the country. Growers increasingly scoured the landscape for potential boosts in efficiency. They noticed that where the honeybee went, higher yields always seemed to follow. “An insufficient supply of bees will hinder the setting of fruit,” read one Kansas farming bulletin in 1899. Spurred by advancements in interstate travel, pollination services soon went mobile. As cultivation continued to bend toward monocrop harvests, the honeybee’s position in the American farming structure was solidified.
That’s when the dying started. Honeybee stocks were decimated in the 1920s and then the 1960s and once more in the 1980s and ’90s. The number of managed colonies had already been slowly eroding for half a century when the bottom fell out in the mid-aughts. Beekeepers went away for vacation and returned to depleted hives. Entire apiaries collapsed in the span of weeks.
This last part is the one that’s most familiar in the public mind—the picture we have been taught to care about, mostly in an environmental sense. “Save the bees,” you will hear, at ice cream shops and farmers markets. A study touting the latest death rates will go viral, and pollinator protection bills will buzz out of state legislatures in response. This is also precisely where the quagmire is at its deepest, where the lines between truth, misconception, and misdirection blur.
The problem of bees in America is not a question of peace with the environment. It’s not really even a matter of conservation, per se. The bees most folks believe ought to be saved are neither natural to the land nor essential to it. They are, instead, integral to our agricultural system, grocery stores, refrigerators, and pantries. We have built a machine in the span of centuries, and it fits so comfortably together. How and why this happened is a story as much about the appeal, adaptability, and shortcomings of American commerce as it is about the dying of bees.
Andrew Coté works atop the InterContinental Barclay.
TheThe roof of the InterContinental Barclay sits 157 feet up, houses four honeybee colonies, and is framed by canyons of glass and metal that open and split the Manhattan sky. In mid-June, three men in bee suits tread atop it. Two are tending to the colonies, while the other, who simply ambles and watches from a distance, is me. An armada of bees lingers on a frame in the hand of Andrew Coté. “This one is very heavy with honey,” he says, lifting the pulsating blob. “You come as close as you’re comfortable.”
Coté, who has a light salt-and-pepper beard below thin, elongated dimples, is a master of urban beekeeping. His family has handled bees for four generations, beginning with his great-grandfather, who kept hives under a set of cherry trees on their farm in Quebec. Coté’s expertise ranges from rooftop beekeeping to swarm catching to pollination services to general honey production. His customer base includes Hugh Jackman, Padma Lakshmi, and Alec Baldwin.
Aspiring beekeepers pay to follow Coté around: He offers a yearlong apprenticeship program for $2,500. His craft, like any vocation, is an exchange, but its returns are decidedly personal. Feelings, memories, money: Everybody’s in it for a different bag. Central to city beekeeping’s allure is its closeness to what we often perceive as natural—even as importing insects to metropolitan roofs is as artificial as a hobby can get. Coté’s colonies are spread throughout the five boroughs, from apartment buildings and boutique hotels to the United Nations headquarters and Bank of America Tower. The ones I’m visiting are on an early 20th-century building in Midtown on East 48th Street. Next door is the Waldorf. Coté used to have bees there, too.
Throughout New York City, urban apiculture has grown at such a rapid pace that it verges on unsustainability. (This fact looms over Coté’s work, in much the same way age haunts an athlete.) The practice may not be the reason for the peril and contortion of the honeybee in America, but it’s loaded thick with the same problems. “In Manhattan, we don’t get a large yield anymore because there are so many people keeping bees,” Coté laments. “I’d say we’re even at or perhaps slightly beyond the tipping point.”
When I meet Coté for the first time in late April, he describes himself as someone “trying to cobble out a living, take care of my family, doing something that I was born and bred to do.” At his stand at the Union Square farmers market, Andrew’s Honey, the daily stock consists of rooftop yields from colonies all over the city: Bushwick, the Bronx, Chinatown, Staten Island, Harlem.
Friends and employees splatter bright fluorescent spray paint on the lids of honey jars while Coté mans the register. Coté is an extrovert who nods his head while talking and leans in, visibly, to most conversations. A customer will ask whether “that’s a thing people say is good to do—local honey,” gripping one of his bottles, and he will assure them with care and send them on their way.
From 1999 to 2010, beekeeping was temporarily banned in New York City as part of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to curb exotic animal ownership. In response Coté formed the New York City Beekeepers Association and lobbied the city to re-legalize the practice in the late aughts. As of 2021, there were upward of 600 urban beekeepers in New York City, and the number has continued to grow and is bound to include some apicultural loafers. “That Christmas puppy syndrome happens with honeybees,” he admits. “And there’s not much I can do about it other than try to impress upon the people who take my class that it is a responsibility. I can’t stop it. I can’t make people be responsible, but I can try to instill in them the values and what it takes to harbor honeybees.”
At the farmers market, one of Coté’s pupils—an ebullient 44-year-old with shoulder-length locs named Regan You—helps out in the back. When I ask You what drew him into the beekeeper’s orbit, he says it was a combination of curiosity and admiration. “He’s like the godfather, granddaddy, OG of all this stuff, so I’m like, ‘Hey, I could learn from the best,’” You tells me. “The type of person that keeps bees, they’re a little weird and off, and I consider myself a part of that group.”
A minute later, Coté pulls a little bottle of sake from under a register, turns to You, and asks only, eyebrows raised, “Some buzz?”
“Mr.“Mr. Jones,” Crawford answers the phone. “What’s going on? I’m loaded with bees—we’re bringing bees to pollination now in New Hampshire.”
It’s after 10 p.m., and we’re still in the middle of hauling.
“That truck’s coming to my house. To my loading yard in Massachusetts,” Crawford continues. “And the truck Wednesday morning’s going right to an apple orchard. What’s your picking now for queens?”
He adds, “Oh, that’s not good. Do you have any extra queens this week? I see. Well, I don’t think the queens are going to get made in that. Or at least if they go out, they ain’t coming back.”
The muddy shores of the Merrimack River loom in the dark distance.
“Well if it’s not one thing, it’s the other,” he says. “You know that. Maybe if I got a free second I’ll stop in there or something. All right. We’ll catch you later.”
Crawford closes his flip phone and returns to what he was saying. He is trying to explain the thing that shakes him out of bed in the morning—what, exactly, it is that compels him to do what he does for a living.
“Knowing that I am an integral part of the United States food supply,” he says. “How much added value to production my bees are actually doing. If you added up every month’s crops together, I’m sure it’s over $20 million. So I feel confident that I’m able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Even though it goes unnoticed by folks.”
Crawford is a rarity in the industry: a first-generation beekeeper. He grew up in Westfield, Massachusetts, and took up the discipline at the age of 15. Within two years he’d progressed from one to three colonies and began selling honey at various local farmstands under the name “Billy C.”
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says, hands now gripped firmly on the steering wheel. “I always had money-making hobbies: coin collecting, and I’m also a bagpiper.”
Crawford attended Westfield State University for undergrad before making the jump to beekeeping full time. A friend’s father had an acquaintance—a commercial beekeeper with as many as 4,500 colonies in South Dakota—who was looking for help. The friend texted Crawford to see whether he’d be interested. “That was on a Sunday morning,” Crawford says. “Thursday I was in South Dakota, and Friday I was working out there, on the prairie.”
“He’s like the godfather, granddaddy, OG of all this stuff, so I’m like, ‘Hey, I could learn from the best. The type of person that keeps bees, they’re a little weird and off, and I consider myself a part of that group.” —Regan You
By 2014 he’d broken off on his own and begun to build his current operation. It took until three years ago for Crawford to hire his first full-time beekeeping employee. About 40 percent of his revenue comes from pollination services, another 45 percent from honey production, and the final 15 or so from sales of live honeybees. (Crawford sells both nucs, small colonies shipped in their frames with established queens, and packages, even smaller colonies shipped without frames or established queens.) He trucks his colonies to pollinate crops in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Georgia, and California. The bees are left on a farm wherever the customer wants them dropped off. They stay there, as he says, “till the bloom’s done.”
When it’s time, Crawford harvests his honey by removing frames from a given hive and placing them in a device known as a centrifugal extractor. Once inside the machine, the frames spin and the honey pools at the base. To fit into jars, the honey is dumped into a tank, heated, and pumped through a 200-micron filter. Crawford sells wholesale to grocery stores, farmers markets, and even other honey merchants. His yearly output is around 100,000 pounds.
In May and June his colonies are in New England for honey production, and in July and August most of them are shipped to Ohio for summer soybean pollination. Toward the middle of fall, Crawford sends them back down to his farm in Georgia, where they stay until February, when some are sent out to California for almond and cherry pollination. His bigger orders of live bees are priced at $900 each, and smaller ones are sold at $135 per order. Crawford’s goal is to sell around 2,000 packages annually. “I don’t mark up my bees that I sell as much as a lot of other people,” he says. “I don’t have to make every single dollar.”
For apples, a staple pollination crop in the Northeast, he generally charges $85 a colony. For blueberries he expects $100 minimum. The most lucrative pollination crop is the California almond. The price per colony is between $170 and $220. Crawford has sent his bees to the almond bloom for the past seven years. He packs only his strongest.
“That’s the biggest paycheck of the year,” he says, a wry grin spreading across his face. “It’s good money sending bees out there.”
IfIf the history of beekeeping in America is a labyrinth of characters, opportunity, and comeuppance, all of its paths lead to the almond bloom. In a mass pollination event as stunning as it is dismaying, more than 1 million acres of California farmland—stretching from Sacramento to Los Angeles—flower an ivory pink every year in late February. California’s Central Valley produces most of the almonds harvested worldwide, about 1.85 billion annual pounds, equivalent to 700 billion individual almonds or $5 billion in revenue.
Each spring thousands of beekeepers from across the country swarm on this Delaware-sized strip of human-engineered bounty. Thirty-one billion honeybees pollinate more than 2.5 trillion flowers. In the 1960s the almond bloom required 5 percent of U.S. bees. In the late 1970s the number rose to 15 percent. Today the total is 60 percent.
It is a scene 200 years in the making. As settlers moved west, Indigenous tribes often interpreted the appearance of honeybees as a sign of the looming arrival of white people. In 1622 the first hives were imported to Virginia, then New York, and, by 1793, Kentucky.
The Rocky Mountains marked the final geological barrier for the widespread introduction of honeybees in the U.S. until a man named John S. Harbison had them shipped and carried over the isthmus of Panama to San Francisco in 1858. In 1876 Harbison began to move his 3,700 hives from location to location on railroad cars while legions of like-minded homesteaders attempted to replicate his business model. With the creation of the movable-frame hive, by the mid-19th century, beekeeping had the potential not only for growing profits but also for mass production.
The tale of farming in California’s Central Valley takes on a similar shape. Spurred by technological growth, the valley was reborn at the turn of the 20th century, from a landscape defined by what it lacked to an engineered Eden.
In 1899, California had already begun growing more fruit than any other state in the nation. At the end of World War II, it produced 50 percent of oranges, 90 percent of grapes, and virtually 100 percent of lemons, olives, and—most vitally—almonds in the U.S. To ensure the abundance of their crops, growers began to turn to pesticides. (By 1895, the toxicity to bees of insecticide sprays had been definitively demonstrated, but the upsurge continued undisturbed.) By 1963, more than 16,000 pesticides had been registered in California, and while many of them were banned over the following decades, bee-harmful compounds are still wielded today throughout the Central Valley. No crop receives a greater absolute quantity of pesticide treatment than almonds.
The February bloom is a notorious super-spreader event for bee diseases and parasites. The effects of the task often hamper colonies throughout the year. When I speak to Crawford, he tells me the whole setup is a double-edged sword. “You can’t have insects or fungi or anything else destroying your crop,” he says. “But I think there’s quite a bit more used than what has to be used. These chemical salesmen, they get such incentives for selling so much.”
In particular, 2023 has already been a high-water mark for colony losses. Geoff Williams, an associate professor at Auburn University who tracks honeybee population trends, tells me in late June, “This year has been among the highest levels we’ve ever experienced. Our losses across the country are zeroing in on 50 percent losses for all beekeepers.”
Crawford, for his part, says he feels comfortable that his methods will help insulate and protect his colonies. “We have big losses every year. However, we are proactively planning for those losses,” he says. “I’m willing to sacrifice the income I make for my bees if it’s going to benefit my bees’ health. … That’s more important than making the honey crop. It’s more important than so many other factors that you could have.”
The year he got married, he had 900 colonies. Then he left for his honeymoon. When he returned, a month later, he was greeted by 200 salvageable colonies. He’s been tinkering ever since.
“I found a model of how I run my business that works for me, and I’ve been doing it for several years,” he says. “And I’m making good money at it. I’m going to keep doing it unless I can find something better. Or something forces me to have to change.”
ThereThere are scientists who study bees about 5 miles from the southern end of Lake Cayuga, the longest of New York’s glacial Finger Lakes. They work out of Cornell University, in a building called the Dyce Lab for Honeybee Studies. The lab’s exterior is green and mostly made of sheet metal. To the west is an open field with high grass, a foot or so tall. In every other direction it’s bordered by forestland.
In early June, Ellen Topitzhofer, the Dyce Lab’s honeybee extension associate, greets me in the shadow of the building. Members of Cornell’s entomology department conduct research at the lab on both honeybees and native bees. It also houses the New York State Beekeeper Tech Team, a group created after the state’s most recent pollinator protection plan, whose focus is improving honeybee health and profitability throughout New York. Inside the lab, there are three bee suits on a row of hangers, a wide and shining honey extractor, and a glass case filled with old beekeeping equipment. “Sometimes this area is very active with people,” Topitzhofer says, swiveling her head, “but other times, like right now, we’re all out in the field.”
“You go out to South Dakota, for instance. There aren’t any trees. There’s no habitat to support these native forestland pollinators. ... What are the overabundance of artificially introduced native pollinators going to feed on? They all are going to starve to death.” —Bill Crawford
The laboratory is best known for its work on pesticide exposure. The tech team, for its part, works with commercial and backyard beekeepers on limiting disease risk and combating the parasitic varroa mite. Introduced from eastern Asia in the late 1980s, varroa mites cause more damage to honeybee colonies than every other apicultural disease. They latch on to adult and adolescent bees, wait until the bees return to their colonies, and then spawn—and the mites’ offspring feast on bee blood. (Williams, the professor from Auburn, coyly pegs the human parallel as “something equivalent to the size of a squirrel living off your body, taking a big bite out of you, and essentially sucking parts of your innards and all the life out of you.”)
The scientists at Cornell advocate a few different treatment methods for varroa, with the key objective being to stop the infestation and eliminate the possibility of vectored diseases between parasite and host. “If you are open to chemical treatment for varroa mites, we will work with our beekeepers that are part of the tech team to come up with a treatment,” Topitzhofer says. “With some other beekeepers, it’ll be a combination of nonchemical and chemical methods, too.”
In January a team of researchers at a company called Dalan Animal Health received USDA approval for a first-of-its-kind honeybee vaccine designed to stop the deadly American foulbrood disease. The vaccine is derived from heat-killed foulbrood bacteria, which are mixed into a sugar candy and passed from bee to bee within the hive. When I talk to Dalan’s regional manager of beekeeper relations, Amy Floyd, she mentions that there is still some hesitancy among beekeepers to try the product. “A lot of operations are kind of like, ‘Let’s try it a little bit. We’ll try this in some of our hives,’” she says. “They want to stop [foulbrood] from happening, but they are also skeptical that something’s going to make it worse.”
In the mid-2000s Claire Kremen, a sustainability scientist who’d been working in Madagascar, cowrote a series of articles contending that, for the better part of a century, U.S. agriculture had been dependent on the honeybee and also killing it. The thinking essentially went that as the U.S. crept toward an overreliance on mono-agriculture, it eroded native pollinator populations, forcing the country to rely more and more on a species (European honeybees) that is both invasive and increasingly unstable. We strip the land to make more of the same crops and in doing so refortify our economic tentpoles and hasten our agricultural demise. The more the system grows, the more it precipitates the upheaval of the very thing it is most reliant on.
“It’s that farming system that makes us so dependent on the honeybees,” Kremen tells me over the phone this spring. “And it’s that farming system that also creates so many pollutants and requires so much chemical use.“
She is one in a cadre of scientists who have urged farmers and states to use and coexist with native bees as a solution to the problem of increased honeybee losses. When I mention this idea to Crawford, he is understanding but unmoved. “There’s people with utopian ideas like that, just trying to make the world a better place, and they have great ideas and it’s like, you wish it would work,” he says. “But it’s not possible.
“You go out to South Dakota, for instance. There aren’t any trees. There’s no habitat to support these native forestland pollinators. ... What are the overabundance of artificially introduced native pollinators going to feed on? They all are going to starve to death.”
Two weeks later, Kremen—without knowing it—volleys back his serve. “The beekeeper’s going to say, ‘They need us. They need us because this is how we have to grow crops,’” she tells me. “The fallacy is we don’t have to grow crops that way. That’s the way we often do grow crops, but we don’t have to. The reason we grow crops that way is it suits certain interests, to be quite frank about it. It suits the folks that produce the seeds, that produce the chemicals, and even that produce the bigger and bigger tractors every year.”
CotéCoté is peering at his rooftop bees again. “These guys are strong as hell,” he says. “It’s great.”
Coté opens the final structure of a collection of colonies and cranks the top box ajar, peering underneath, while his left hand keeps the whole thing from tumbling over. “This one’s ready now,” he mutters. “But I’m gonna add another box because I’d like more, if possible.”
His apprentice Regan You is fiddling with a frame near where the edge of the InterContinental Barclay’s roof meets the summit of the building’s front. I ask Coté whether he could’ve ever learned to oversee these colonies without the benefit of studying under master beekeepers. He turns to his student and repeats the question.
“Regan, you think you learned a lot more doing this with people than on your own?”
“Oh, definitely,” the pupil answers, without ever looking up from the hive.
“Just access, you know,” Coté continues. “I get emails several times a day. People wanting to tag along or come along.” Then he walks away to grab a new compartment for the hive. When he’s back, there’s a box between his palms. Before he places it on top of the colony, he sets it down and says, “Generally just can’t accommodate them.” The hive is now high enough to graze his chin.
To get to the next building, we walk along Park and Vanderbilt Avenues. Coté and I had removed our suits, but You keeps his on. (“That’s part of the fun, walking around with a bee suit in N.Y.C. Giving the tourists a story,” he says.) The second hotel is in a 14-story building that used to be a department store and now has glossy floors and wide-mirrored entryways. Coté was approached directly by the business’s management team to deliver and care for the hives. They keep a portion of the honey and get to promote it as a perk for visitors.
“I’m not looking to be the most numerous. I’m just looking to do the best job possible,” Coté says. “It’s very different now. I’m not a fan of it, and I’m looking forward to getting out of it at some point. I won’t be able to do the quality work with the kind of cheap imitator competition that has sprung up lately.”
Like commercial beekeeping, city beekeeping is now a bona fide economy.You’re more likely to see registered colonies in the five boroughs than in most of the counties outside them. Apartment complexes have started touting rooftop bees in their marketing campaigns. A wave of multinational companies now runs faceless urban beekeeping boutiques. “I don’t know what they charge. But I do know that they will get a client and then even just go on Craigslist and pull up an ad looking for a beekeeper,” Coté says, with the look of someone who’s just found a bug in their food. “It’s not the same kind of quality control that we have.”
The roof is covered with smooth pebbles and surrounded by a metal banister on every side. Behind us lie the sandstone confines of the New York Public Library; in front, the heart of Manhattan. The view is outright Olympian: Buildings reflect buildings, which reflect the sun, and the clouds, and the bright blue plain of the sky.
The hives stand in the farthest corner, strapped to wooden stands. There is a righteous order to them, each three sections high, hued blue, yellow, and white. You unstraps each and pumps sweet burlap smoke over them while inspecting their frames. Bees begin to flutter out. He pulls loose a thick frame and places it to his left. It is loaded and layered with bees, in front and in back, a vibrant cover of moving fur.
“There’s the queen,” he says. “See the red dot.” Beekeepers mark their queens according to color to help track their age and performance. Her thorax is the length of a thumb and close to double the width of the thoraxes of all other members of the colony (each of whom are her children). To ensure the sovereignty of her reign in the moments after she first emerges from her pupating cell, a queen will impale each of her unborn sisters with her stinger.
Coté uncovers a colony that has literally outgrown its confines. There are clumps of sparkling white honeycomb on the interior of the lid and a few hundred bees spread around it. It’s so pale it looks like seafoam, and the honey glistens in its divots. Coté scoops a piece up, dusts the lingering insects off the hunk, and breaks it apart with his hand. He shakes the last few bees off his portion and takes a bite.
“Oh, hell yeah,” he says, mid-chew. “You want to eat some?” He extends his spackle to me.
I reach out and grab it with my right hand. I eat the whole thing in four bites. It is sweet—the deepest, most molar-aching sweetness I have ever encountered—and yet manages to retain a thorough bite. It is slightly tangy, bafflingly light, and comfortingly warm. My fingers cling to one another well into the afternoon and I think, on and off, of the prices I’d pay for more.
One of Bill Crawford’s pickups for “haulin’ bees.”
AtAt 5 in the morning, Crawford steps out of a hotel in his black boots and drives past high mist and rolling fields until he reaches a mountain with a blueberry farm on top. The summit is a part of New Hampshire’s Belknap Range, just below Lake Winnipesaukee to the north. It barely scrapes 1,000 feet above sea level. This makes it more like a big, loping hill. It is cloudy and foggy on the mountaintop, which is maybe not a mountaintop, and the bees aren’t stirring because it’s cold and there’s rain.
Crawford parks his pickup and greets the blueberry farmer—a silver-haired man with a mustache, guttural voice, and old GMC pickup. The beekeeper unpacks his Bobcat forklift, a model from the 1980s, and watches its tires sink into the mud. There are two loads of bees: one that he brought up and another transported by his associate. The latter is unstrapped and uncovered gradually, while the former sits bundled near the border of the farm.
A couple of bees begin to surface, but there are very few that stray more than a foot from the trucks. Crawford sits in the Bobcat, covered head to toe by a bee suit and turquoise gloves. The machine belches smoke. The colonies are still stacked on top of wide wooden pallets. When Crawford unloads them, he angles the forklift under the pallets so that it’s braced by wood above and under the tongs. He cranes his head forward to see whether he’s hit the pallets’ sweet spot. Then he slowly inches the load upward, about a foot, and begins to reverse the vehicle.
When he has a load in the teeth of the Bobcat, it looks like the machine has a trunk or a nose, the pallet openings forming a set of nostrils. Bees sometimes shoot out of these nostrils, but they’re generally still. In search of warmth, a few stick to our suits; there are some dead ones left in the space where the hives had been.
Crawford uncovers the second load, and we drive farther up the summit while bees hover around the pickup. They occasionally cut through open windows and shoot out through either side. Crawford unloads more pallets from the Bobcat, leaving them precisely where the farmer instructs. There are little, plastic white nets that surround the target areas; they look like thin bull’s-eyes. Red fronds of lowbush blueberry sprout from peanut-butter-hued loam like a field of alpine Chia Pets.
As the temperature rises, the bees become more active. At midday I try to hide out in the truck, away from the buzzing and fluttering hives. Crawford hands me a green pamphlet with a picture of him and his family on it. It contains advertisements for his apiary and Proverbs 24:13—“Eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste.”
During the entire expedition, I am stung only once. It happens then, in the passenger’s seat of Crawford’s truck, while I am holding this pamphlet. When the work is finished, we drive through the countryside and he looks out of the window at a clearing. There are old cream farmhouses with wide lawns, solitary oaks, and stone walls. “That’s a beehive,” Crawford says, as if discovering the trade anew. “He must be a new beekeeper. He don’t even have a fence around it.”
CotéCoté is talking bees. We just came out of the clouds. Then we shuffled through Bryant Park. Now, he’s teaching a crowd of 36.
“There are about 20,000 types of bees in the world and about 5,000 types of bees in North America and 258 types of bees on this island of Manhattan, and one type of bee amongst all of those that makes honey. And that’s the honeybee,” Coté says. “If we’re talking about cars, finance, women, I’m not your man. But if you’re talking about bees, you can trust me.”
Coté holds court from behind a green plastic table under a pair of yellow awnings. He hosts these lectures for the New York Public Library three times a year. The flock is split in two sides, six rows each, five seats per row. He leans forward, with his elbows on the table and his legs spread apart. He describes the social order and hierarchy of the hive. Drones are male. Workers are female. Babies are brood. Queens eat jelly. Then he plots the history of honeybees in New York City: antebellum hives in Lower Manhattan, queen producers in 19th-century Brooklyn, colonies near hospitals and orphanages before World War I.
“Now, it’s actually gotten to the point where I and many others believe that there are too many beehives in New York City,” Coté says. “Whereas the hives might get 80, 90 pounds of excess harvestable honey in a year 15 years ago, if I get 30 pounds per hive [now], then I’m over the moon, I’m very happy.”
There are college kids and elementary school students sitting next to grandmothers and married couples. All of it is framed by two rows of tall London planes, their branches forming a sinewy roof 30 feet in the sky. When Coté finishes lecturing, he takes questions from the crowd.
“What happens to the bees in the winter?”
“How do they make honey?”
“Did those German honeybees die off?”
“How do you replace the queen when it’s time?”
Pedestrians walk through the park on either side of the audience. A bus churns to a stop in the distance.
“How has vegetation changed since honeybees have been introduced in America?” asks a young man in a blue Carhartt tee.
He has unwittingly kicked a nest. Coté nods his head and lifts the microphone to his lips.
“I think big industrial farming and beekeeping have grown together in a way that, I guess, I don’t personally consider it super wholesome,” he says. “But I also recognize as a beekeeper, I am also part of the problem. And for me, it comes down to: I have people to feed. During COVID, I brought my bees out to California for almonds. I hadn’t done it before and I haven’t done it since, but I did it for those two years because it was that or not pay the mortgage, on my personal level.”
A bird coos behind Coté as he finishes the sentence.
“It’s very tricky because they have really changed the landscape. It used to be that I could put down my bees somewhere and they’ll get a nice diversity of nectar and they’ll be healthy. But now if I put them down in almonds, it’d be like if you or I ate kale,” he continues. “Kale is good, kale is healthy, we’ll applaud ourselves for having a nice kale salad instead of pizza. But if we eat kale only for six weeks, like the bees have almond nectar only for six weeks, at the end of it, we won’t be dead—we may wish we were—but we’ll just be unhealthy and then susceptible to other health problems.”
There is a fire truck sounding in the distance, but no one notices. Everyone in the crowd is looking at Coté.
“I think we produce something like 92 percent of the almonds in the world, and there’s a huge demand for it and it grows every year,” he says. “I’m not anti-almond. I eat almonds and I want avocado too. But all those things have ingredients that now cannot be produced without the honeybee.”
Coté is now straight as a bone. He scans the audience. His tone is determined. He pauses only for effect.
“These big, huge farms that disallow a variety aren’t good on any level other than a profit-making level, and we all have to live. But maybe there’s a solution that smarter minds than what I have can come up with,” he finishes. “Beekeeping as a vocation or commercial pollination as a vocation is probably about 100 years old and ties right in with the internal combustion engine and trucking and interstate highways.
“It’s all … ,” Coté says, with a hint of resignation, “together.”