Nature Calls

New Yorkers love cell phones. How about the bees?

Last week David Graves, New York City's preeminent beekeeper, began the spring ritual of opening his rooftop hives. The first two he checked— one off Union Square, the other on the Lower East Side—were full of honey but nearly empty of bees.

Had Graves been hit by Colony Collapse Disorder? The mysterious and potentially apocalyptic syndrome has been threatening honeybees and the crops they pollinate, both in Europe and the U.S. Standing in the April cold at the Union Square farmers' market, Graves thumbed through a copy of Beekeeping for Dummies and pointed out other possible culprits—killers like foulbrood (a bacterium), nosema (a parasite), and Varroa mites. Those plagues leave behind a nasty pile of corpses. With Colony Collapse, you open the hive to find nobody's home.

The latest theory, that radiation from cell phones is jamming bees' navigational systems, almost makes sense— especially in a big city. Graves remarked on the number of cell phones he sees in his customers' hands, then reached toward the awning over his jars of jam and honey. "Maybe I should hang a cell phone up there and put a noose around it," he joked.

Maybe—but not just yet. If cell phones are indeed to blame for the thousands of bee colonies abandoning hives, honey, and brood young, you would expect defection en masse by the bees of New York City. So far, at least, the situation is more mixed. Fred Duchac, a Brooklyn beekeeper, reports that his three city hives are fine, as does Roger Repohl of the South Bronx.

Repohl, who keeps his bees in the Genesis Park Community Garden, says he lost the weakest of his hives over the winter; the dead bees were lying in the box. He knows the other colonies are thriving, because he has watched the field workers carting in lots of pollen. "I know there's babies to be fed," he said.

Like other apiarists, Repohl wonders what might have changed in the environment to make bees leave their hives. Cell phones have been around for a while, so he's not sold on that theory. Could it be that commercial operators have confused bees by trucking them around to pollinate far-flung fields? Could a new pesticide, maybe one of the nicotine-based ones, be at fault? Or has an old pesticide finally done too much damage? "Maybe it makes the babies kind of retarded, so when they go out there they lose their sense of direction," he said.

The problem does seem more prevalent in the large apiaries outside New York City. Beekeeping in the city is practiced mainly on a small scale and by hobbyists, since it violates a law against husbanding dangerous wild animals. Out on Long Island, in Bohemia, beekeeper Raymond Lackey is down to 18 colonies from some three dozen; he says the decline started a few years ago. Some of Lackey's bees were killed by weird weather, and others just disappeared. Why? "I don't think we know enough to know," he said.

Whatever is behind Colony Collapse Disorder, it's got Sidney Glaser spooked. For several years now, Glaser has tended a single box of bees in the Clinton Community Garden, in Hell's Kitchen. The hive was fine when he showed it to a Japanese television crew on December 11. On February 6, a warm day, Glaser noticed bees collecting pollen. In March, he opened the hive again and found honey but almost no bees-—alive or dead. "It's unusual," he said, and there's no ready answer. All he can do is restock the hive. He's ordered new bees and expects them to arrive by mail on May 14.

 
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