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Strolling a lazy country lane in West Marlborough Township, Walt Broughton passes a spring-fed, trout-stocked pond en route to a meadow in a valley shielded from blustery winds by a sloping hillside and a line of tulip poplars and black locusts. He’s on his way to visit the girls.

The meadow is dotted with 41 hives painted in an array of pastel colors. Each houses up to 60,000 honeybees—all of them female.

Broughton and his three sons live in a stone farmhouse that dates back to the 1750s on land once known as Winterwood Farm. Dressed in a dark-blue sweatshirt and a ball cap, Broughton sports a long beard and a brown, braided ponytail. Formerly the farm’s manager, he’s been a beekeeper since 1983.

“I visited a friend who kept bees and took two hives home in the back of my truck,” says Broughton, who was raised in Clifton Heights. “It grew to 10, then 50, then 100 and then still more. This spring, I have 175 hives here and at a dozen locations throughout Chester County. For the past decade, it’s been a small business. But I look at it as a blessing since I’m making a living at my hobby.”

If you want to grow fruits, vegetables or nuts in the U.S. on a commercial basis, the basic requirements are soil, sun, seeds and water. But the real champions are the honeybees—millions and millions of them—trucked in from all over the country to pollinate the crops. About a third of the nation’s food supply is dependent on them. Transferring pollen from the anther to a receptive stigma within a blossom or flower allows for the development of fruit and seeds. Bees help produce apples, pears, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, avocados, cantaloupes, cherries, strawberries, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, onions and almonds. They also pollinate plants used for livestock feed and are important to cotton production.

Social insects, bees live together in groups, cooperating in foraging tasks and caring for their young. They come in different types, or “castes.” Try to comprehend this work schedule: Honeybees visit 2 million blossoms to produce 1 pound of honey—never mind the pollen collected, the beeswax produced, and the many other jobs that must be completed for a colony to thrive.

Broughton’s business is the production of honey and bee pollen, along with the pollination of crops at Vollmecke Farm outside Coatesville, Pete’s Produce in Westtown, Milky Way Farm in Unionville and other sites. He positions the hives in fields with a southwesterly exposure and, during pollinating season, visits them each week.

“Bees travel roughly two miles for nectar and pollen (that’s collected on their hind legs),” Broughton explains. “After an initial orientation flight out from the hive, they know exactly the route home. Call it their GPS system. During the spring and summer, the bees work six to eight weeks. They literally work themselves to death.”

Last spring, American beekeepers realized that one-third of their hives had collapsed. Honeybees were simply flying away to die. This strange phenomenon, now called colony collapse disorder (CCD), threatens more than the honey industry: $15 billion worth of U.S. crops simply will not grow if honeybees don’t pollinate them.

There are no shortages of theories explaining CCD, with blame parceled out to everything from cell phones to high-tension wires. As some of the nation’s top scientists tackle this problem, none of the usual explanations seem to fit.

Frank Ruthkosky heard about the crisis from his father-in-law, who recently rekindled his hobby of beekeeping. “When he got back into it, I jumped in with both feet,” says Ruthkosky. “I heard the bees were in trouble; I wanted to help by putting some hives on my property.”

Three years ago, Ruthkosky set up shop with six colonies near his old farmhouse on three acres in Exton. Those have since mushroomed into 50 hives. He estimates the cost of a smoker, a hive tool and protective clothing at $350, plus another $70 for a package of 18,000 bees.

Ruthkosky is vice president of the Chester County Beekeepers Association (CCBA), which boasts about 100 members. Most keep bees as a hobby, but some have made it a business. They meet monthly at sites where CCBA members maintain hives, share their experiences in hive management and toss around ideas for increasing honey harvest. CCBA also offers courses to educate the public about honeybees and the various hive products.

All in all, Ruthkosky gets along fine with his bees.

“I rarely get stung—unless I screw up,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re in the hive squashing a few bees, then they’ll zap you.”

It’s late March, and Frank Ruthkosky and Jim Bobb are barreling down I-95 on their way back from Baxley, Ga., their truck’s hefty trailer stocked with 350 packages of honeybees. At roughly 15,000 bees per package, that makes the total haul 5.2 million. The Southern heat can take its toll on hives, so they stop a few times to hose down their transport.

“The bees will be distributed to about 85 beekeepers in the five-county Philadel-phia region,” Bobb says. “Most are hobbyists starting out with one or two hives.”

Bobb is a horticultural and apiarian educator who keeps his hives at public and private gardens and orchards all over the area. In February, you’ll also find him helming the CCBA’s popular Beginning Beekeeping Seminar. “This year, we had around 90 people,” he says. “I teach them about the colors, shapes and markings of flowers that are designed to attract the bees. Bees are the most efficient pollinators—that’s the reason for their existence. Chester County produces billions of apples; the sheer volume is astonishing.”

Broughton offers his Swampbustin’ Honey in 10 different varieties and four shades that are the result of the diverse floral sources the bees visit. Abundant during spring and summer, Golden Nectar is pale and delicate in body and flavor, and ideal for sweetening tea. Fall wildflowers make Black & Gold heartier in texture and well suited for baking.

Besides blackberry and raspberry flavors, Broughton also offers hot pepper honey—a sweet, spicy condiment with habaneras and piquant peppers that can be used as a marinade or for basting meats and vegetables. It can even be drizzled over ice cream.

Last year, Broughton produced 9.7 tons of honey, thanks to ample moisture and a terrific crop of clover. It was his best year yet. The honey is sold to roughly 35 health-food stores, smaller grocery stores, specialty shops, and scores of individuals he meets at fall food festivals. Starting in mid-April, his sons and assistant Trey Fleming work doggedly at the honey extraction process. From early July on, the nectar brought back to the hives is for the bees’ own nutritional needs.

“We pull it and spin it out of the comb, then bottle it,” he says.

“With commercial honey, they heat it to 180 degrees, then filter it. We do none of that, because it will lose its nutrients and flavor.”

As for colony collapse disorder, people are looking for a smoking gun, but they’re not finding it. Right now it appears the bees’ immune systems have been severely damaged by a complex set of factors. Much like their human counterparts, they’re overstressed.

“Bees are a barometer of our environment,” Broughton says. “The commercial bees are shuttled cross-country, which I’m sure causes a lot of stress. They are locked into a limited floral source that compromises their nutritional needs, and there is great exposure to pesticides. In a sense, CCD has become the AIDS of the honeybees.”

Broughton hasn’t experienced CCD, mainly because he believes his bees stay close to home. They don’t intermingle with swarms of outsiders’ bees, where disease can spread rapidly.

“Seven years ago, my bees started to disappear,” he recalls. “But it was only in one yard over a 10-day period in April. Seventy percent of the hives were wiped out. I’m still not sure what was going on.”

It will take months, possibly years, to figure out exactly what’s killing the bees. Scientists are patiently trying to recreate CCD in healthy hives in an effort to determine what’s triggering it.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Broughton says, breaking into a grin. “My plight taught me that if we give bees the chance, they’re going to reproduce exponentially. Provide for them, so the bees can do their thing and provide for us.”

To learn more about the Chester County Beekeepers Association, visit chescobees.org.

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