Steller: Tucsonan on quest to breed super bees

2014-08-21T22:00:00Z Steller: Tucsonan on quest to breed super beesTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 21, 2014 10:00 pm  • 

You see Greg Denker on a Tucson street in a white bee suit, and you might think you’re looking at a guy who exterminates killer bees.

You couldn’t be much further from the truth.

Denker has made a name for himself in Tucson by riding a wave of public concern about the health of bees. Across the country, but not as much in this region, honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of what’s known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Some people have come to a greater appreciation of bees as a result, recognizing that they’re needed to pollinate many wild plants as well as food crops. So they don’t want them killed; they just want them gone.

Denker and his two employees at American Bee Control are happy to oblige and have a self-interest in keeping the hives alive. When they remove a hive, they take it to state trust land on the southeast side for which Denker has a beekeeping lease.

There, he does selective breeding of bees in an effort to produce mite-free, disease-resistant super bees.

“A couple of years ago, I made the determination that I’m not too old to learn modern genomics,” Denker, 58, said when I met him before a removal earlier this month.

He proudly pulled a letter from a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Maryland documenting that bees he sent there to analyze if they had any diseases came out perfectly clean. It’s a somewhat unusual finding.

“These bees are bullet proof. Also very productive,” he said.

When Denker first began keeping bees, when he was in elementary school during the 1960s in Tucson, there wasn’t a lot of demand for bee removal, he said. That was before the arrival of Africanized bees in Arizona, which made people more concerned about nearby hives.

Like many Arizona beekeepers, Denker sees the positives in Africanized bees. Unlike European honeybees, they are resilient and highly productive. Unfortunately, they can also be aggressive and even kill.

That’s why competitors in the pest business like Josh Tennenbaum of Arizona Pest Control are quick to point out that Denker is not a state-licensed pest controller. If things go bad at a hive removal and bees must be killed, unlicensed bee-removers like Denker can’t break out the big guns and exterminate, he said.

“There are bees you need to kill because it’s a dangerous removal,” Tennenbaum said.

But Tennenbaum, too, sees the market for removals increasing. His company also removes some hives live and keeps bees on state trust land to produce honey. However, in many cases live removals are more expensive and customers choose not to do them.

When I asked Denker later, by email, about licensure and the need to kill some bees, he answered this way:

“We have never needed to kill bees. We can, by the use of synthetic pheromone lures and similar technologies — together with our analytical tools — always find the bees’ hive and either physically get them out or convince them to come out under our control.”

Denker grew up in Tucson and has kept bees since he was young. After going away to college in California, he returned and worked in real estate, search-and-rescue and other fields. He also converted to Mormonism and remains active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For years he ran a business called Printer Resources Corp. that developed products for printer manufacturers. He also spent six years in the Washington, D.C.-area working for Lockheed Martin before returning to Tucson in 2005.

“I’ve always been a product development guy,” he told me when we went out on a recent call. Indeed, that’s the way he thinks of his beekeeping — not as research but product development.

The call I went to was unusual. The bee hive was in a fallen saguaro cactus outside a southeast side home. Denker puzzled over where the queen was and how to remove the bees before having employees Mel Swinson and Chase Rubbo start carving off pieces of the cactus with a chain saw.

While they worked — exhausting labor in a hot bee suit — Denker and I drove over to the state trust land to look at his hives.

“This is great because it’s far from homes but close to the good stuff,” he said of the lush desert vegetation.

All the hives are labeled and placed deliberately in his effort to develop a disease and pest-free bee he can later commercialize. That’s the end game.

His way of getting there is through conscientious customers like Winterhaven resident Ann-Eve Cunningham.

A couple of weeks ago she was out of town when she got a call from her HOA telling her a contractor had discovered a hive on her property.

When she got back, Cunningham said, “I spent three or four hours watching the bees. They were utterly peaceful, very quiet, just doing their bee stuff.”

She had made an appointment with Denker, but a miscommunication meant that someone else called an exterminator in before he got there. He killed hundreds of bees, but Denker later found many more inside the tree, alive. It’s an ongoing operation to see if they can be rescued, Cunningham said.

“The reason why this business is so great is because everyone who calls here is a fine person,” Denker said. “A lot of the customers get so emotional about these bees.”

That’s a good thing — for us as well as the bees.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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