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""Go down east and it's quiet," Jack Tapp says of North Carolina’s coastal plain, where the land is a checkerboard of agricultural fields. "There's nothing natural that flies anymore." Tapp works 16 hours a day, six days a week running a Chapel Hill-based apiary with a thousand beehives. Only a few decades ago, farmers could rely on wild bees and other insects to pollinate their crops. Now that wild bees have all but disappeared, beekeepers like Tapp play an increasingly important role in putting food on our tables. Bees are responsible, directly or indirectly, for every third bite of food Americans eat: $15 billion worth of food each year. Trouble is, Tapp and many like him worry beekeepers are disappearing, too.
Now in his mid-60s, Tapp owns one of North Carolina's thirteen largest commercial apiaries. Of those, eleven owners are at least 60 years old. Tapp's wife helps him with his business, along with two men who are both Tapp's age or older. The three men work building and repairing hives, extracting honey, and loading 80-pound hives full of bees onto trucks so they can be taken to fields. Their ages are not unusual among beekeepers: seventy percent of America's beekeepers are over 45. Many are retired.
During my visit to Tapp’s apiary just outside Chapel Hill, I asked him, "I'm wondering, does fifteen billion dollars worth of food a year depend on a bunch of retired hobbyists?"
I fully expected him to tell me I was exaggerating. Tapp turned his head, looked me in the eye and with a straight face said, "Well, yeah.""