ACCOMAC, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Felicite Berrouette is the picture of calm as he guides his audience of fellow bee enthusiasts to his collection of hives. Within moments, a swirling, buzzing cloud envelops them.
He lifts the lid on a white wooden box whose dimensions measure a little larger than a microwave. Out he pulls what looks like a picture frame — and it is indeed called a "frame" — with a coating of rustling bees where the canvas would be.
"That's what you want to see," Berrouette tells the onlookers, now leaning in for a closer look. "When a beekeeper sees six or seven frames like that, that means money."
Thirteen years removed from coming to the Eastern Shore of Virginia with no family and hardly any money, Berrouette has turned a passion for bees into a business with a whole lot of buzz.
The man whom most folks call "Licho" is chief beekeeper for the year-old Accomac-based venture Virginia Eastern Shore Apiaries. The company produces honey and breeds bees for sale, but its primary business is renting bees for commercial crop pollination.
His services were immediately in demand. Berrouette and his bees have traveled to farms as far as California and Florida in the past year, and the calls keep coming. To keep pace, he has expanded his stockpile of hives from fewer than 100 to about 1,500.
Berrouette has a simple message for his bee-suited audience: Keep the swarm happy.
This, he mentions later in a more-private setting: The bees bring him happiness in return. Beekeeping gives him a livelihood, to be sure. But when it's just him and his bees, Berrouette is at peace.
“The bees can teach you anything in the world," he says in a philosophical moment. "There is nothing better in the world than to be close to bees.”
An unlikely partnership
Virginia Eastern Shore Apiaries is operated by an unlikely duo.
Berrouette, 28, is in charge of the bees. He's a third-generation beekeeper who was born in Haiti and worked as a laborer at a nursery before taking on his current role.
The business side of the house is run by Jonathan Orloff, a former aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy who maintains ties to D.C. with occasional lobbying jobs. In 1988, he became a part-time resident of Accomac, where he and his wife, Nancy, had purchased a telescope house originally built in 1750.
Now living year-round on the Shore, Orloff was looking to start a business a couple years ago, something to invest in that bespoke the qualities of the surrounding rural landscape.
For his part, Berrouette wanted something more, too. He dreamed of becoming a full-time beekeeper.
The two men's lives intertwined through a third: Dreaux Alvare, Orloff's across-the-street neighbor and Berrouette's boss at Hortco Greenhouses & Garden Center in Onley. Alvare set up the meeting.
"In a way, it's textbook," Orloff said. "He didn't have the money, and I didn't have the expertise."
More than honey
A few dozen backyard beekeepers and farmers have gathered here on the outskirts of Accomac on a mild spring day to see for themselves what makes their company hum.
On the fringe of the crowd, Josephine Mooney, who helped organize the tour, speaks in an excited whisper about this long-awaited day.
"For a year, I've been trying to make it happen because I was fascinated by the legendary beekeeper here," says Mooney, projects director for the region's Resource Conservation and Development Council. Her group has sponsored the talk along with another, Future Harvest, in the hope of stirring up more interest in locally sourced agriculture in an area where industrial-scale farming dominates.
Such talks are funded by a $44,000 grant handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some of the participants traveled from as far away as Baltimore, more than three hours away, she notes.
Berrouette walked them through the basics. If a colony is lacking in food, water, shelter or any other necessity, the bees will attack and kill their own by the million, he says. A ravaged colony can be salvaged but only at a substantial cost of labor and productivity.
They can be raised for honey but only at the expense of the pollination side of the business, he says. Removing the honey for its own sale takes away a key food source. And he wants to produce as many bees as he can for crop pollination.
Farmers will pay $70-$200 per hive, depending on the type of crop and the time of year, Orloff says. Berrouette loads 2,000 hives onto tractor trailers at night, when the bees are less active, and they are driven to their next job.
"They travel more than we do," Orloff jokes.
Bee decline an opportunity
One in every three bites of food, experts say, is directly or indirectly pollinated by honeybees, who pollinate about $15 billion worth of U.S. crops each year. Almonds, for instance, are completely reliant on honeybee pollination.
But these are tough times in the industry — and for bees.
America's beekeepers watched as a third of the country's honeybee colonies were lost during the last year, part of a decade-long die-off experts said may threaten the food supply.
A newly released annual survey of roughly 5,000 beekeepers showed the 33 percent dip from April 2016 to April 2017. The decrease is small compared to the survey's previous 10 years, when the decrease hovered at roughly 40 percent. From 2012 to 2013, nearly half of the nation's colonies died.
So what's killing the honeybees? Parasites, diseases, poor nutrition and pesticides among many others. The chief killer is the varroa mite, a "lethal parasite," which researchers said spreads among colonies.
"That bothers me as a citizen and a human," Orloff says, "but it also speaks of an opportunity."
Harvard scientists, in response to the collapse of the bee population, are working on a bee alternative called RoboBees. They hope the tiny, hovering robots could replace their real-life counterparts in fields within a decade.
But as Berrouette sees it, real bees are irreplaceable.
“There are things people haven’t figured out yet," he says.
A hive of activity
It has taken multiple generations of his family to figure out bees, and they're still working at it, Berrouette says. Born to a father from France and mother from Belize, he started tending the family's hives shortly after he learned how to walk.
His father was a missionary with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and was working in community development in Haiti when "Licho" was born. The church reassigned his father to Belize when the boy was 7, and the family followed
At 15, he was ready to set out on his own. Although he spoke no English, he moved to the Eastern Shore to work in the landscaping industry with his brother. Within a couple months, his brother moved to Mexico, leaving Berrouette to make his own way in an unfamiliar country.
He went on to get a degree as a dental hygienist but never pursued it professionally. All the while, he continued to maintain hives of bees wherever he could. In a decision that changed his life, his boss at the nursery let him keep some colonies at his own house.
Orloff admires his counterpart's work ethic. The company leases land at more than two dozen properties in Maryland and Virginia, and it employees a handful of part-time workers.
But by the admission of all involved, Berrouette is the backbone of the operation. Like a bee, he buzzes tirelessly from colony to colony in an enterprise that so far has assured mutual fulfillment.
USA Today contributed to this report.