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ANCHORED TO THE SOIL by their roots, plants can’t go out in search of the ideal mate—or any mate at all. To ensure that their gametes mix and match with others of their kind to perpetuate the species, they release pollen on the wind or, using a strategy that emerged more than 65 million years ago, deploy showy blooms and sweet nectar to recruit mobile helpmates. Bats, birds, and a wide range of insects seduced by color and scent transfer pollen as they brush up against stamens and pistils in the quest for a good meal. It’s an intricate dance cued by rainfall, daylight, and soil and air temperature throughout the year, contingent on the syncopated life cycles of plants and pollinators. The resulting seed bodies—everything from apples to zucchini—account for one-third of the modern American diet.
North America boasts 20,000 species of native insect pollinators, maybe more; nobody knows the precise figure. Maryland has more than 400 species of native bees—and while their ground-dwelling, solitary habits, often cranky disposition, and narrowly tailored symbiosis with individual plant species are perfectly attuned to a diverse native ecosystem, they’re a poor fit in an intensively managed, large-scale agricultural system. Enter Apis mellifera, transported to this continent in the mid-1600s by European colonists who relied on the docile, collaborative insects for the array of crops they pollinate, the relative ease of domestication, and the volume of sweet syrup they produce.
As the 20th century hit its midpoint, the honey bee hit the fast track. National farm policies driven by an emerging industrial food system promoted a “get big or get out” mindset. Farms consolidated, and to increase the efficiency of the massive machines required to work hundreds of acres, farmers eradicated hedgerows where native pollinators once thrived. Diversified family farms producing blooms—and food for pollinators—all season morphed into square miles planted with a single crop, blossoming en masse in a bloom-and-bust cycle ill-suited to the survival of pollinators. “It’s not that honey bees are necessarily better pollinators than other bees or insects,” says University of California, Riverside, entomologist P. Kirk Visscher. “It’s just that if you want a million of them to show up this week and be taken out two weeks later before you put on insecticide treatment that would kill them, it has to be honey bees because they’re portable and managed in large numbers.”
Today, hives loaded on tractor-trailers commute from California almond plantations to Florida orange groves and Maine blueberry barrens and everywhere in between, credited with a $14 billion contribution to the nation’s food production. The system hinges on a new syncopation: enough honey bees in the right place, at the right time to pollinate crops nationwide. This spring, as colony collapse was again credited with national honey bee losses of 30 percent and the inventory of robust hives dipped dangerously low, brokers flew in honey bees from overseas to stay ahead of demand.
RAISED ON A FAMILY farm at the northern edge of the Baltimore City limits, Esaias had a lifelong fascination with honey bees. But it took a bit of serendipity—and the fall of the Berlin Wall—to turn him into a beekeeper. Esaias was 43 when East and West Germans clambered atop the Wall in November 1989. Son Colin, then 11, was a Boy Scout. As diplomatic ties between the United States and Eastern Europe thawed, defense contractors living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., started losing their jobs—among them, the assistant scoutmaster of Colin’s troop. At a troop meeting father and son attended just days before the leader’s departure, the man offered up his honey bees and the equipment to tend them. “We’ll take them,” piped up Colin, with a glance to his father. “Won’t we, Dad?”