The Sting


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September 25, 2010
By Ryan

Earlier this year, I submitted a story to the inaugural issue of 48HR Magazine, which invited writers to craft stories based on a theme in about 24 hours. Editors and designers took the accepted submissions and put together a magazine in another 24 hours.

My 1,200-word story made the cut, though that theme—cut—continued into the publication, in which the piece appeared sans about 900 words.

I was still thrilled to be published, and to be featured on the magazine’s website. Still, I wanted people to be able to read the full story, which follows.

P.S.—I successfully submitted a piece to the magazine’s second issue as well. Though my feature isn’t online, check out Longshot and grab a copy.

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Isaac Miller dreams of the bees he cons. He spends almost all his daylight hours cradling their eggs, sampling their honey, wading through clouds of them, so they literally crowd his thoughts and crawl over into his subconscious after dark.

It isn’t guilt leaking out behind his closed eyelids. There’s no shame in what he does, and what he does is trick colonies into breeding him queen after queen, which he sells to commercial beekeepers eager to inject some hardy genes into their own hives.

Miller (no relation to the author) is young for his trade. The scruffy-bearded 21-year-old lives on California’s Central Coast, and is simply in awe of bees. He lovingly describes the smell of honey and hot wax fanned by tens of thousands of tiny wings. He visualizes the way individual insects hover in the air, virtually motionless at the center of a swarm. He marvels at the intricate and elaborate structures they build inside their hives.

But what really floors him is that he can pay his rent—and even have money left over to sock away in savings and buy beer—with his bee-gotten earnings.

“The whole process is fooling hives into thinking they need queens,” he says with a smirk. “It’s a bait and switch.”

The job takes finesse, patience, and a willingness to get stung at least 20 or 30 times a day, but it keeps him outdoors, free from a desk and evenings lit only by the glow of a computer monitor.

Miller came from Nashville to San Luis Obispo, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, when he was 18. His southern roots don’t tap into any drawls or y’alls—he sounds like he was born and bred in California and has the surfer looks to match—though he does have a tendency toward decidedly non-native “yes sirs” and “yes ma’ams.” He distractedly grabs hanks of his hair while he talks, twisting his dirty-dirty-blond mop into spires and points that hold firm even when he takes his hands away. The beeswax that collects on his scalp and fingers throughout the day straightens his natural curls and acts as a sort of permanent pomade.

He’s animated in his descriptions of bees, in his recounting how he essentially stumbled into the previously foreign world of combs and nucs and other honey-drenched jargon. He was studying to be a computer engineer when a series of chance encounters set him instead on a path that led to full-time hive management. He’s on a hiatus from school now and working more than 40 hours a week with an experienced beekeeper who’s teaching him the sticky secrets of the trade and partnering with him to build their queen-growing business.

This is the area for it. Bees are no small deal in this sun-soaked stretch of the state, where fields are studded with strawberries and trees hang heavy with avocados and lemons. Ag production in the county was valued at more than half a billion dollars in 2009, and the California State Beekeepers Association is holding its convention at the local Embassy Suites later this year.

Beekeepers both contribute to the growing bounty and tap into it. Pollination contracts with farmers ensure healthy crops while generating income—plus honey—for the people who cart hives from orchard to orchard. Intrepid apiculturists can also earn a few bucks responding to panicked calls from folks who spot a swarm on their property and want it gone. Fast.

Miller takes such calls, many of which are bounced to him from the local police department, but his real interest is in generating queens. He spent a recent early-May afternoon describing how to pull a fast one on bees for the sake of anyone looking to get in on the action. Here’s a simplified rundown, more or less:

First, find a healthy hive, filled with strong workers. Search the combs for the queen. When you find her amid her 30,000 subjects, kill her. Don’t be squeamish. Smash her so they know she’s gone for good.

Load the hive with four dozen just-hatched bees—tiny blobs of life squirming inside special plastic chambers that hang upside-down as if from a clothesline. The orientation is important. In their desperate rush to raise a new queen, the drones will feed any larva in a down-facing chamber gobs of royal jelly to bulk her up to brood-laying size.

Wait a few days. Timing is always important, but now it’s especially crucial. Before the first of the new queens crawls out and eliminates her competitors by stinging them through the head while they still slumber in their cells, remove the 48 plastic chambers. If you’re good enough, gentle enough, expect about 38 queens to have matured.

Stick them in an incubator for a day or two. Meanwhile, scoop a Spam tin through an established colony and dump the resulting 200 or so bees into a shoebox-sized box with three combs and a sugar-water dispenser. Add an emerging queen so she hatches into the welcoming hum of her new mini-hive.

Soon, she’ll take her mating flight and will start laying eggs. Check to be sure she’s producing properly, then leave her alone. Let her get settled.

After a couple weeks, pull her out, paint a dot on her with model airplane enamel to make her easier to spot, and sell her to a commercial beekeeper for upwards of $15. Repeat—or at least let the bees repeat the process. Whenever they’re without a queen, they’ll start making several.

The operation where Miller works boasts about 1,000 mini-hives, all divided to hold a queen on each side. Various mites and diseases plaguing hive health these days ensure he’ll always have customers; a sturdy new queen is the best way to build sturdy new colonies. And the business needs sturdy new colonies.

In late April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced results from an online- and telephone-based beekeeper survey conducted jointly with the Apiary Inspectors of America. Though the results were cushioned by plenty of statistical hedging and warnings that a complete analysis has yet to be done, the initial findings were disheartening—even “worrying,” as reported by the department’s Agricultural Research Service.

In short, honeybee colonies seem to be declining in the United States, mostly from apparent starvation and weak colonies. Miller says queens used to last three, four, even five years, but now their reign over a healthy hive only runs about a year or two. A feeble queen opens her workers to a host of lurking and fatal troubles, so bringing in a stronger ruler from survivor stock promotes overall bee health, which in turn helps farmers who rely on the bees to boost yields. The pollination they dutifully carry out is literally worth billions of dollars. In other words, even if the global food supply doesn’t collapse if bees dwindle to less than useful levels, the economy would take a massive hit.

Miller is glad to be aiding the industry, especially in a time when it can use all the help it can get. He knows he’s making a difference in more ways than one. While his queen-rearing focus has obvious benefits for agriculture as a whole and beekeeping specifically, his own young blood represents a transfusion of fresh genes into a rapidly aging profession. Plus, he’s literally keeping honeybees alive longer than they’d survive without his meddling in their genetic destinies. But despite the metaphoric weight of his current employment, he seems to find the most satisfaction in simply telling people what he does for a living.

“We hang out, and we work the bees, and we finish the day with a beer,” he says. “I love having cards that say, ‘Isaac Miller, beekeeper.’”

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