Steve Cantu couldn’t get up from his recliner. His back had given out after a hard day’s work hunched over bee boxes. But he adjusted the plush chair to sit upright next to his wife, Leslie, for better conversation.
“It’s part of it,” he laughed. “I’m just glad that it usually gets better.”
The Cantus have been in the bee business for more than 40 years. Sometimes, they said, it can be hard on their bodies, twisting them out of shape and bending them at unnatural angles. A good nap on the floor and a couple days’ rest usually does the trick, Steve said, and thence goes right back out to the hives.
Beekeeping is a good fit for the family, he said, so they don’t mind the hard work.
“This started with me helping a friend of mine that had bees, about 45 years ago or something,” he explained. “I just thought I’d like to have a few, and that’s what I’ve done, and next thing I know, I was in it full time.”
“It just fit. I was just tired of working in the mines. I worked in the phosphate mines at the time, and it was just really bad on your health. So, I wanted to get away from it, and that’s what I did.”
The Cantus have spent several decades curating bees for temperament and energy levels.
“They all have different traits,” Leslie said. “So, what you try to get is a good mix. You know, some will be more aggressive... and for pollination and honey gathering, you want bees that aren’t quite so laid back. You want them out there working, but you don’t want them mean and angry.”
This gentle nature has come to play an especially significant role in recent years, the beekeepers explained. In the past few decades, as natural bee populations deteriorate, the Cantus have found themselves with a quality product in high demand.
Researchers found that in areas where bumblebees used to be abundant in North America, your chance of spotting one has halved in recent decades.
There are several explanations for the decline, experts say, including above average temperatures and the introductions of diseases, parasites, and predators.
“We had plenty of feral colonies back years ago before the mites came,” Steve said. “And most farmers didn’t pay much for bees, because they have so many wild bees. But since the mites’ve come out and all the viruses and different things, they’ve been having to pay for the bees.”
“There’s just not any out there.”
Pollination has become the largest part of their beekeeping business, the Cantus said. This summer alone, they shipped off 3,000 hives to various parts of the country. Some went to Michigan to pollinate blueberries and pickles. Others went to California to help with the almond crop.
Steve said they’ll be counting their colonies in the coming weeks to see how many they get back.
Bees can be finicky, and commercial beekeepers have not been spared losses. In the 2020-21 season, beekeepers reported higher than average turnover according to preliminary results of the Bee Informed Partnership, which has been gathering data on the subject since 2006.
American beekeepers lost 45.5 percent of their managed honey bee colonies between April 2020 and April 2021.
The Cantus explained that cross-country travel can be difficult on the bees, who are prone to overheating, freezing or starvation if left standing for too long. They do not live long when left under tarps on trucks.
“The weather turned cold, and getting trucks is hard,” Leslie said. “So what they end up doing is they end up eating up all the food that you leave on them, and they do that pretty quickly, and then they if you aren't able to get feed on them right away then they'll dwindle.”
“And the cold weather – they can't get out and fly, they're more prone to viruses, that kind of thing.”
But the Cantus say that years of experience has taught them to be resilient. Beekeeping is not a stable way to make a living, and some years they are more successful than others.
Leslie says that Steve has threatened to retire from the business quite a few times since they got their first hive in 1986. But she can’t see either one of them leaving the field behind.
“Most people are fascinated by them, but they’re afraid of them,” she said. “It’s challenged us over the last 40-something years, but we just keep on keeping on. I don’t think we know how to stop.”
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