CLAYTON, N.C. — Ever since he found some old hives in his grandfather's Pender County barn when he was a teenager, Richard Uzzell has had bees on his mind.
A few weeks ago, all grown up with three kids and a wife, he fulfilled his boyhood wish: He bought two queens and six pounds of worker bees. "Just what I've always wanted: 40,000 free employees," says the high-school Russian teacher, emerging from a cloud of bee-calming smoke.
His hives here in Clayton will, if nothing else, keep his family in honey for the winter. But amid one of the worst-ever winters for bees - ravaged by mites, half of America's 2.5 million colonies perished - he's helping to solve a quiet agricultural crisis.
Like Mr. Uzzell, many Americans are lining up to ease a looming pollination problem, tugged by the promise of honey money and an agri-patriotism: The struggling bumblers pollinate $15 billion worth of agricultural products in the US every year, a critical link in the growing cycle of everything from cantaloupe to tomatoes. Easily domesticated, and crowding into hives by the tens of thousands, honeybees are perhaps the world's perfect pollinators, and their shortage has farmers scrambling.
"The beekeeping situation has got some real problems and the repercussion of that could be ... consumer concerns," says Don Hopkins, North Carolina's state apiarist. "We're trying to increase the supply of bees and at the same time increase the number of [parties interested] in keeping bees."
The stakes were raised this winter, when Asian "vampire" mites, grown immune to pesticides, ravaged the hibernating hives. In Pennsylvania, some farmers opened their hives this spring to find that 75 percent of their bees had perished. Florida, where beekeepers send their hives for the colder months, took a huge hit. Orange-grove owner Rob Dye says he's lucky that a friend put a couple of hives at the edge of his 40 acres. "There have been no bees on that property for some time," says Mr. Dye.
Always excellent pollinators - they gather in large numbers and, once domesticated, easily withstand being transported to farms in need - the honeybee is in higher demand than ever. Many beekeepers who normally winter their bees in Florida have instead shipped them to California, where almond growers are paying triple the usual hive fee to have bees in residence.
But despite that call of "Go West, young bee," California farmers are bracing for a 16 percent decline in almond yields, according to the US Department of Agriculture's California Statistical Office.
It's a similar situation in North Carolina, a state that is shifting from greenhouse-planted tobacco (which doesn't need bees to flourish) to large tracts of monoculture crops, such as cucumbers or strawberries, which flower to fruit and require bees for pollination.
Now the state is using tobacco-settlement money to promote beekeeping.
To be sure, honeybees aren't the only pollinators in their field: Butterflies, moths, and garden flies - just about any insect that likes the taste of nectar - are helpful, too. But easily domesticated honeybees, by virtue of their sheer numbers, are the farmer's best hired hand. With up to 80,000 individuals per hive, busy worker bees flower-hop for nectar, spreading pollen from plant to plant in the process, which allows the flowers to turn into fruit. And by letting farmers focus an overwhelming number of insects on a specific area, honeybee pollination brings about both better quality and bigger yields of fruit and veggies.
Jerry Hayes, Florida's beekeeper in chief, well understands the hardship of a hive shortage. "We can't keep this up for long," he says. "If honeybees ceased to exist, two thirds of our citrus would disappear."
In part because of publicity about the shortage, in part because of the allure of apiary adventures, there's a faint buzz of hope: While bee laboratories struggle to find new "mitecides," some states are starting to subsidize beekeeping, and potential beekeepers are swarming to sign up for classes such as next weekend's "To bee or not to bee" course in western North Carolina.
In Jackson, Miss., more than 100 people attended a short course on beekeeping last weekend - a huge crowd at a bee class, says Harry Fulton, president of Apiary Inspectors of America. A program to study and introduce Russian and Italian bee queens at North Carolina State University had hundreds more applicants than there were free hives.
"There were a lot of disappointed people who didn't get into that program," says Angel Johnson of Brushy Mountain Bee Farms in Moravian Falls. One North Carolina beekeeping association has reported a doubling of members this spring.
A state of small beekeeping operations, Kentucky is making it easier to get into beekeeping and expand existing operations. Using tobacco-settlement money, the state has bought dozens of honey extractors that small beekeepers can easily get to and use: "We're seeing people expand operations that wouldn't be expanding [otherwise]," says Phil Craft, the state's bee inspector.
As he looks over his new honeycombs, Uzzell, the rookie beekeeper in North Carolina, is happy to discover that his buzzing subjects have accepted the new queen he recently introduced. "These hives are self-serving to an extent, but they're also good for North Carolina agriculture, and I take some pride in that," he says.