A soft buzz, almost like a hum, filled the air as Glen Clayton Jr. reached into a beehive and pulled out a wooden frame.
Covered in lines of delicate honeycomb, the frame was heavy with sweet, golden nectar just visible in the hexagonal cells.
“One of these boxes will give me between 25 and 30 pounds,” he said. “You know a bee in a lifetime only makes a teaspoon of honey?”
The owner of Hungry Hill Farm in Shipman, Clayton has been caring for bees since the 1980s.
While he has beeyards in Amherst, Concord and Nelson County for breeding and selling, his focus is honey. Every year, the second-generation beekeeper, or apiarist, sells about 100,000 pounds of honey.
Despite what their name suggests, the western honeybee’s greatest economic contribution is not everyone’s favorite sweetener.
“The big economic value of honeybees is pollination, it’s not necessarily honey,” said Ann Zudekoff, a certified master beekeeper in the Lynchburg area.
And as bee populations continue to dwindle, it is not only our access to that precious honey that could be at risk.
Picture a world without apples, string beans or strawberries.
It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but it could be much closer to reality than people imagine.
Most sources agree bees pollinate 70 of the 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world.
These food sources go beyond fruits and vegetables. Nuts, coffee and alfalfa — a main food source for beef cattle — all rely on pollinators for survival. So does the cotton for our clothes.
Commercial beekeepers make a living off the pollination process, moving hives from state to state, allowing the bees to pollinate crops in a process called migratory beekeeping.
In the industry, it is referred to as “following the bloom.”
The journey begins in the almond fields of California’s Central Valley in February — the single biggest pollination event on the planet because the Golden State produces more than 80% of the world’s almonds.
From there, the paths diverge with some remaining on the Coast to pollinate California’s cherry, plum and avocado orchards or the apples and cherries in Washington State.
Others head east to the alfalfa fields in the Dakotas, trek north to Wisconsin, Michigan or Maine for berries, or hit up Florida’s citrus trees and watermelon patches and Texas squash in the South, Scientific American noted in 2013.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees add about $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture.
There is also an impact on the local economy thanks to the approximately 40,000 hives the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates are in the commonwealth.
“From a crop industry, we’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars,” State Apiarist Keith Tignor said. “... There’s a significant amount of money that they contribute to agriculture as far as the quality and the quantity of the crop production.”
Some local producers, like Gross’ Orchard in Bedford, rely entirely on wild bees for pollination.
“They’re adapted to the area,” said Ronnie Gross, who runs Gross’ Orchard with his father, Walter T. Gross. “They are more in tune with what’s in bloom close by. They will fly for a mile or so.”
However, many in Central Virginia, including Drumheller’s Orchard, Yoders Farm and Dickie Bros. Orchard, contract with beekeepers or use neighbors with hives.
Before scaling back in the mid-2000s, Clayton kept about 500 colonies and helped pollinate orchards in Nelson County; he still pollinates parts of Crown Orchard in Covesville.
“It’s just good insurance to have them,” said John Brugiere, co-owner of Dickie Bros., when asked about domesticated hives.
Because the property butts up against Little DePriest Mountain at the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge, Dickie Bros.’ fruit trees still attract wild pollinators.
But counting on those critters for a livelihood “when you have so many different variables from growing crops like weather, drought,” is risky, Brugiere said.
“We probably could get by without it, but ... it gives us peace of mind that we’ve got extra bees out there.”
After a morning of sweeping the nearby forest, Zudekoff’s bees returned to the hives, clumps of yellow attached to their hind legs.
“There’s lots of gals coming in with pollen,” said Zudekoff, as she watched her nine Lynchburg hives on a warm April morning.
While there are more than 500 species of bees in Virginia, honeybees are the only year-round pollinator, Tignor said.
They are also generalist pollinators who seek out anything in bloom, thereby contributing to an area’s environmental stability, he said.
Wildflowers, holly and even the tulip poplar trees — beloved locally for their connection to Thomas Jefferson — are aided by bees.
“You think about just in the fall when people come in for Skyline Drive in the Valley to see the changes in the leaves,” Tignor said, “all that is helped along by our pollinators.”
None of this is to say honey is without its own economic boon.
According to an annual report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released in May, U.S. honey production in 2018 was valued at more than $333 million.
“Nearly 95% of the beekeepers in the commonwealth are maintaining bees as hobbyists,” Tignor said, and “part of that joy of having the bees is having that sweet honey as a reward to them for all their work with the bees.”
There are more than 300 varieties of honey, the National Honey Board reports on its website, each sourced from a different plant giving it its own unique color, flavor and consistency.
“If you get in a honey that’s labeled just ‘wildflower’ or just honey from a local beekeeper, no two years will be the same,” Tignor said. “No two beekeepers’ will be the same in the taste of that honey because it’s based on what’s available and how much nectar is available in that given year to those bees.”
In the Lynchburg area, the prized varietal is sourwood honey, said Zudekoff, who sells honey through her business Crazy A.Z.’s Apiary. Produced from the nectar of the sourwood tree in the Appalachian Mountains, the varietal has what Zudekoff describes as a light flavor and a zingy aftertaste.
Meanwhile, the tulip poplar produces “a deep, reddish amber honey with a very rich, buttery molasses taste,” Zudekoff said.
In addition to sourwood and raw honey, Glen Clayton, of Hungry Hill Farm, who sells at the Lynchburg Farmer’s Market, offers dark and berry-flavored honey, produced from pollinating three acres of red-and-black raspberry bushes.
It’s not just local consumers who pick up a bottle of his products. Silverback Distillery incorporates Hungry Hill’s dark honey in its Blackback Honey Rye, which won gold at this year’s New Orleans Bourbon Festival.
Clayton, like others in the commonwealth, sells his honey for about $7 per pound — a hefty profit if he hits even half of his 100,000 pound goal each year.
Annual reports from the NASS valued honey production in Virginia at just more than $1 million in 2018.
For these economic and environmental reasons, changes to the state’s bee population are worrisome.
In 2006, bees made international news when apiarists reported the disappearance of colonies at an alarming rate.
“I remember going in, and I opened up the hive and all that was in there was the queen,” Clayton recalled. “And she flew away.”
According to The Guardian, the loss of more than 10 million colonies between 2007 and 2013 has been attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder — where worker bees disappear from hives, leaving behind the queen, their food and immature bees.
Bee deaths from mites and pathogens, pesticides and climate change continue today, though the decline rate fluctuates annually.
Last month, The Bee Informed Partnership, which studies bee survival rates, reported U.S. beekeepers lost almost 40% of their colonies last winter — the greatest losses since the organization’s survey of honeybee colonies was started 13 years ago.
In 2016, Virginia honey production decreased 38,000 pounds, or 17%, from the year before, costing the state $1.1 million, VDACS reported. This decline in revenue correlated with a 32% hive loss during the winter of 2015-2016.
VDACS reported bee losses of almost 60% in 2017; Hungry Hill Farm lost 79 hives that winter.
“It puts the strain on my pocketbook,” Clayton said. “You’ve got to replace if you’re committed to something.”
Declining honeybee populations could also be disastrous for local growers, Tignor said, referring to the situation as possibly devastating.
While these figures are cause for alarm, there still is time to save the bees, and it only takes a few simple steps.
Allow a handful of weeds, which are a great source of food for bees, to grow in the lawn and minimize pesticides as much as possible, Zudekoff said.
She also recommended planting bee-friendly gardens, wildflowers and shrubbery on highway medians.
“Even a small flower box,” Tignor added. “It may not make a difference between a hive surviving ... but it does help add to what’s available.”
Cities also can help by creating spaces for re-wilding, where an area of land is restored to its natural state, and increasing urban agriculture.
On July 9, Lynchburg City Council approved a resolution designating Lynchburg a “Bee City,” an affiliate of environmental nonprofit The Xerces Society’s Bee City USA initiative. Under the new resolution, the city agrees to advocate for pollinators by hosting awareness and conservation events, providing pollinator-friendly habitats and creating a plan that reduces dependency on pesticides.
The policy is not advocating for the total abandonment of yard maintenance, but a little goes a long way — especially given all that bees do for us.
“People say to me, ‘Bees have been here a couple million years without our help. They don’t need us now,’” Zudekoff said. “But it’s a different world now.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.