Honeybees are one of the most important pollinators on the planet. Their labor singularly accounts for up to one third of our nation’s annual food supply, contributing about $15 billion in added value to vegetable, fruit, fiber, and nut harvests. In Texas, about ninety crops—melons, cucumbers, apples, cotton, canola, citrus, among others—owe their well-being to the honeybee. For commercial beekeepers, who truck their colonies thousands of miles cross-country, it’s this pollination process, much more than honey harvesting, that constitutes their livelihood: A beekeeper can earn upward of $150 per hive for leaving his bees at a farm or orchard for six weeks to pollinate the crops.
But recently our agriculture and apiary industries have been hit with a true crisis: The bees are leaving. Entire colonies across the U.S. started vanishing as early as 2006—commercial operations in more than 22 states have reported losses of as much as 75 percent of their hives—and no one has an explanation. The phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder, occurs when the female worker bees of a seemingly healthy hive abruptly disappear. There are competing theories about what causes CCD: malnutrition, pesticides, modern beekeeping practices (such as long-distance transportation of bees and the administering of antibiotics to the hives), genetically modified crops, mites. But the truth is that no one knows. The scientific community is aggressively searching for clues, and in May, Congress finally set aside some money for CCD research in its farm bill. With no solution in sight, the consequences to the country’s food production could well be devastating.
Texas’s commercial beekeepers—there are about 250 of them—have been affected too, and it’s against this dire backdrop that I decided to focus my photographic energies on the honeybee. I have a personal connection to bees: I began raising them at age nine as one of my 4-H projects. I paid $10 for my first hive in 1971, and