Flying Away

I’ve loved honeybees since I was nine, when I bought my very first hive. Little did I know that one day I’d witness the sudden and catastrophic disappearance of these treasured insects.

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 by the time I graduated from high school, I had an apiary of a dozen or so hives. I raised my bees purely for honey and usually placed the hives among the citrus groves of my native Southern California. In the winter, as their food supply dwindled, I’d feed the colonies sugar water to sustain them until spring.

I’ll never forget the thrill of inspecting my hive boxes and finding the queen, distinguishable by her long abdomen, surrounded by workers who tended to her every need while she tirelessly laid eggs to keep the colony alive. While a worker bee’s life span ranges from four weeks to six months, a queen can live for five years or more. She can lay as many as 2,500 eggs a day, or 2 million in her lifetime. A healthy hive has a population of approximately 60,000 bees, all female, save for a few hundred males, called drones. The drones are much larger than the workers, and their sole purpose is to fertilize the queen. Rather than forage for food, they live off the honey produced by the workers. Once their duties are done, they are often evicted from the hive to die alone (those who refuse to leave may be stung to death).

I have a deep admiration and respect for honeybees, as well as insects in general. In fact, had my love of photography not won out, I would have pursued a career in entomology. This series of photographs combines these two passions. Working under the guidance of biologist Dwight Romanovicz, and with specimens I bought from a Georgia beekeeper, I made the images in June and July of this year using a scanning electron microscope at the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, at the University of Texas at Austin. After soaking the bees in ethanol, I employed magnification and micromanipulators—and often as many as twenty pins—to mount them; I then painted each tiny insect with a thin layer of platinum so that it could withstand the microscope’s powerful electron beam. This coating is what gives the bees their luminous appearance.

Given both the technology and the specimens’ fragility, the project required hundreds of hours to complete. But they were hours well spent; our honeybees deserve such full attention.

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