They call him “Mr. Bee,” “The Bee Guy” and, sweetly, “The Honey Man.”
For decades, Glenn Gueho has been southeast Louisiana’s go-to exterminator when it comes to bees. Every year, he gets roughly 2,000 calls from city agencies and homeowners asking him to rid skyscrapers, public parks and private homes of the pesky insects.
But Gueho isn’t just in the business of removing unwanted invaders. The owner of Marrero-based Busy Bee Co. has a mission: saving the region’s bees from colony collapse, an epidemic that is decimating bee populations in Louisiana and elsewhere in the United States.
“They’re beautiful,” Gueho said about his bees, which he adopts after being paid to remove them from unwanted locations. “And they’re so important to the colonization of our crops and the balance of things in nature.”
Experts say that delicate balance is now in danger, because the nation’s bees have been disappearing at an unprecedented rate for the past decade. The decline means trouble for agriculture, as bees are integral to the pollination of more than 100 crops commonly consumed in the U.S., including apples, tomatoes and coffee.
They’re declining by an average of 30 percent every year and, since 2006, have cost commercial beekeepers $2 billion in lost hives, according to Bee Informed, a website about colony loss, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Overall, bees from 10 million hives have died, largely without explanation.
The problem is so bad that in May, President Barack Obama unveiled the nation’s first strategy to improve the health of honeybees. The plan calls for studying bee-killing parasites and damaging pesticides, as well as restoring millions of acres of land for pollinators.
But while policymakers in Washington try to navigate the politics behind mass bee extinction, Gueho said he’s taking a more hands-on approach in Louisiana — one honeybee at a time.
On a recent Tuesday, the Louisiana-born beekeeper buzzed around the backyard of his Marrero home, showing off the estimated 6 million bees he keeps in an apiary of homemade hives scattered among his satsuma and orange trees.
There, he raises the honeybees and keeps them safe, away from noxious poisons and swatting homeowners who may not quite appreciate the momentous role the insects play in the circle of life.
“Every four to six weeks, I bring them out and talk to them and see what’s going on with their lives,” Gueho said, decked from head to toe in white protection gear, heavy boots and a netted mask. “It’s mainly to see if they’re happy.”
It can be hard work, according to Ryan Abadie, one of the seven beekeepers who help Gueho with his Busy Bee Co. operation. Gueho often works manically, 12 to 14 hours a day, flitting from site to site and educating his clients about bees.
“He’s always like that,” Abadie said, as Gueho bounced between an office trailer and the field, rattling off facts about honey extraction techniques, queen bee life cycles and the lost art of chewing beeswax. “I’m 24, and I can barely keep up with him.”
Always a nature lover, Gueho was known as a boy for going to school with flying squirrels in his pockets. He and his two brothers also kept pigeons, ducks and quails.
It was the bees that changed his life, however. He started collecting them when he was 8 years old and would climb trees in his Marrero yard, capture them in bottles and play with them.
“My mom, she was my savior,” Gueho recalled. “My dad hated the bees, but my mom said to let me have them. They make me happy.”
Gueho soon realized he could make money off them. He started collecting hives and selling their honey for $1 a jar.
By the time he was 16, he had bought a car and paid for classes at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.
He kept up the hobby and eventually took up beekeeping full time. He enlisted his brothers to help and started a family business.
One by one, they all moved on to other careers, except for Gueho, who boasts of having been a beekeeper for more than 50 years.
“My father and brother are ministers now,” he said. “But me, I’m a minister of the bees.”
Fossil evidence shows that honeybees have been around for 150 million years, but their time on earth seems to be quickly declining.
There are several theories behind colony collapse. Gueho partly blames the small hive beetle, a bothersome parasite from Africa that’s wreaked havoc on Louisiana’s beehives since hitchhiking en masse from Florida several years ago.
The other problem, Gueho said, is a complaint often heard from fellow environmentalists: global warming.
“The sun is now generating so much heat in the top of the beehive itself,” Gueho explained, adding that the trees and foliage keeping them cool are being torn down, too. “They abandon the beehive. Bees are like people — if we can’t take the heat, we’re leaving.”
New research supports Gueho’s theory, showing that bees have lost about 200 miles off the southern portion of their “wild range,” or the area where they travel, in the United States and Europe. The trend continues at a rate of about 5 miles every year.
These days, most of Gueho’s time is spent chasing after feral bees, or the ones that escape from their hives into buildings, streetlamps, brick walls, skyscraper decks and trees.
About 75 percent of his business now comes from “honeybee extraction” services, he said, and the rest from honey sales. That’s because in the past couple of years, 30 percent more bees have been abandoning local hives and moving into public places.
“It’s been extreme,” he said.
Saving those feral bees, rather than killing them, can be a painstaking process, as was evident during a recent extraction in the Central Business District. Gueho’s men had to be lifted 150 feet in the air on a boom truck to remove a nest from the top of the Maritime Building at Common and Carondelet streets.
A few days later, the beekeeper was at it again, slowly sucking 200,000 honeybees from an infested brick wall into an old white bucket, where he planned to keep them safe until he could introduce them to their new hives in Marrero.
He tore away at siding, dazed the bees with a plume of smoke and fended off stings during the three-hour job.
“It’s ridiculous; it shouldn’t be like this,” said Russ Schlotzhauer, a 78-year-old part-time worker at Lowe’s and an Algiers resident, whose house was infested. “I’m stunned.”
Gueho didn’t mind, however.
He leaned in and took a deep whiff from the bucket of bees, smelling the slightly pungent odor of their pheromones, the hormones the bees use to “talk” to each other. He then picked up an abandoned comb, sticky with honey, and licked his fingers.
“It’s a sweet job,” he said, grinning.