CHENSHENG LU hardly cuts the profile of a provocateur. He dresses business casual and wears silver-rimmed glasses. He lives in Wellesley. He gardens. He has two children, one in high school, another in college. He occupies a tidy office in the Landmark Center, as an associate professor in the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health. And yet the mention of Lu’s name in certain quarters elicits palpable discomfort: Oh, him.
Lu, who is 49 and goes by Alex, grew up a city kid in Taipei, the youngest of three siblings. He rode his bike to the baseball field, sometimes to the comic-book store. He knew little about agriculture, little about nature. Then he came to the United States for graduate school, first to Rutgers University and then to the University of Washington, where he got his PhD in environmental health. In the Pacific Northwest, Lu found his calling: tracking pesticide exposure in food, homes, and workplaces. The prevalence of these chemicals, he grew convinced, was a critical and understudied aspect of public health.
For nearly all this time, Ken Warchol was in Northbridge, teaching social studies to middle school and high school students, playing a 19th-century industrialist in historical reenactments, and coaching track and cross-country. On the side, Warchol, who is 63, tended to his lifelong passion of beekeeping, operating his own hives, helping other bee enthusiasts around Worcester County, and examining apiaries as a state inspector. “My whole life,” he says, “I’ve been with bees.”
A sixth-generation beekeeper, Warchol traces the family tradition to Poland in the 1840s. His father brought the practice and tools with him to the United States after World War II. Several years later, Warchol, as a young boy, got his first hive from his father, who made him a wager: Whoever had more honey at collection time won dinner at the Bungalow, a restaurant down the road. Warchol can still remember the particulars of his victory. He had 84 pounds of honey to his dad’s 76, and he got steak at the Bungalow. Only recently, as his mother was dying, did she spill the secret. His father had given him the strongest hive so he could win.
Dick Callahan grew up nearby in Worcester and earned a PhD in entomology from the University of Massachusetts, inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which chronicled the damage wrought by pesticides and sparked the modern environmental movement. After four years in the Air Force, he embarked on a career as a scientist and entrepreneur, running environmental surveys in the ocean, cofounding and taking public a pharmaceutical firm, and then helping others start their own companies. “I’m a real capitalist,” the retired 72-year-old says.
About 15 years ago, Callahan was wandering around a Worcester flower show at what is now the DCU Center. He came upon a beekeeping exhibit and thought, I’ve always been interested in that. Soon after, he enrolled in a school run by the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. One of the instructors was Ken Warchol. They became friends and worked together on a government study of an eradication program for Asian long-horned beetles. Callahan went on to start several beehives of his own at his home in Holden and on a nearby farm.
The tale of how Lu, Warchol, and Callahan began collaborating is one chapter of a much larger story, a story of billions of vanishing honeybees and what their plight means for our dinner tables and health. It’s a story of science and mystery, of politics and big business, of California almonds and Maine blueberries, of threatened livelihoods and jeopardized crops. It’s a story about the high stakes and strong passions of environmental research. It’s a story about chemicals, and what we know and don’t know about their imprint.
This part of the story begins simply enough. In the fall of 2009, Lu and his son drove out to Keown Orchards in Sutton to watch Warchol give a presentation to beekeepers on preparing hives for the winter. Afterward, he introduced himself to Warchol as a Harvard scientist, asking Warchol to consider partnering with him on a research project.
Warchol’s first reaction was, the Harvard University? “I got a 1,300 on my college boards,” Warchol recalls telling him in an early conversation. “I wasn’t even close to getting into Harvard.” Lu reassured the beekeeper. He wasn’t looking for a student. What he needed was a teacher.
IN LATE 2006, beekeepers across the United States began reporting an ominous discovery: their honeybees were disappearing at unprecedented rates. Beekeepers, many of whom tended thousands of hives, were accustomed to losing 10 percent to 20 percent of their colonies each year. Normally, in diseased hives, piles of dead bees pooled at the bottom. This was different.Continued...