On a sweltering Saturday at the Dallas Farmers Market, Brandon Pollard is wearing his weekend uniform: a honeybee costume, complete with bobbing antennae.
"Buzz, buzz, busy bees!" he says cheerfully as families pause to examine the little black and yellow creatures crawling around in Pollard's glass-paned observation hive, which is flanked by stacks of bee-themed books and jars of the honey that he and his wife, Susan, extract from the "micro-apiaries" that they maintain at a dozen East Dallas properties.
A young couple stops at the booth. As they watch the bees crawling over the honeycomb, Brandon lets the facts fly.
"The average life of a honeybee is 40 days," he says, his antennae flopping wildly. "That teaspoon you have, it takes 12 bees to make that, so it's amazing to think how much work it takes."
The couple nods in surprise.
"And that's just one of the wonderful things they do for us," he continues. "Pollination is the most important thing they do for us, and our honeybees are disappearing."
The Pollards run the Texas Honeybee Guild, and one of their most pressing goals is to expand the number of healthy beehives in North Texas and protect the insects—crucial for agriculture and horticulture—at a time when they face a mysterious peril that's been destroying colonies since 2006. More than one-third of U.S. hives were lost last winter, and in late June, scientists, farmers and beekeepers testified at congressional hearings about what has been dubbed "colony collapse disorder," in which worker bees simply disappear from seemingly healthy hives. Bees pollinate billions of dollars' worth of fruits and vegetables each year nationwide, and if they're threatened, so is the food supply.
Possible explanations for the bees' disappearances include viruses, fungi, pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change. The Pollards, who have about 50 colonies, say they haven't lost many bees themselves but know other keepers who have. While scientists work to identify the cause and formulate a solution, the Pollards are as busy as a two-person bee colony, educating people about the animals, advocating for their protection and selling a host of honey and beeswax products.
It's the height of their sixth season as beekeepers, and they're swamped. In addition to harvesting for their trademark "Extra Virgin ZIP Code Honey," pulled from hives in specific Dallas ZIP codes, which currently include 75214, 75206 and 75236, Brandon helps larger commercial beekeepers transport hives from field to field to pollinate crops, and the couple has so many people calling to report bee colonies in their roofs and vents that the Pollards have a waiting list for bee removals.
"We have about 20 messages on the machine," Brandon says. "We call other beekeepers three-quarters of the time. We can't handle all of it." The night before, they rescued a colony from a vent in a North Dallas home and were busy getting the bees situated until about 1 a.m.
The Pollards met through mutual friends who for his 30th birthday gave Brandon a membership in the Collin County Hobby Beekeepers' Association. They fell in love with each other and with the pastime. Both shared a love of macrobiotics, conservation and natural science, and they ultimately decided to make beekeeping the focus of their lives.
"It was total immersion," Susan says of their entrance into the beekeeping community. "Within a month I found myself opening 250 hives."
The Pollards encourage people to support the area's urban bee populations by starting community gardens, patronizing arboretums and buying local produce at places like the Farmers Market. They also explain that instead of poisoning unwanted bees, residents should call beekeepers to remove and relocate the colonies. And those interested in hosting honeybees in their yards can provide a home without having to worry about maintenance, since Brandon and Susan take care of the colonies. In terms of danger, they say that it's unlikely if the bees are responsibly maintained.
"It's like being a good dog owner," Brandon says. "You have to know where you're getting your bees and take good care of them."
At 34, Brandon is focused not only on teaching laypeople about bees, but on learning more himself. On a recent Sunday in Shed 1 he explains the insects' importance to a group of children and turns to greet an elderly man gazing fondly at the observation hive.
"Are you Mr. Levin?" Brandon asks.
The man nods.
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"You're that old-time beekeeper I have so much to learn from!"
The man smiles and extends his hand.
The crowds are thick now, but soon they'll begin to thin and it will be time to break down the booth, pack up and cover the observation hive with a sheet for the ride home to Lakewood. Then, the Pollards will gear up for a week filled with honey harvesting, bee rescues and commercial transport. Brandon is preparing to help another company move hives for crop pollination.
"We'll be pulling 80-pound boxes of honey off those bees," he says. "It's gonna be sweaty. It's gonna be hard, but when you're in the middle of a bee yard with millions of bees flying around in the air—there's nothing like it."