I’ve long been fascinated by bees. So industrious, and so necessary. And the workings of the honeybee hive-mind are incredible, if perplexing. So when PCC Natural Markets asked me to write about the trend of urban beekeeping for their Sound Consumer newspaper, I told the editor I’d bee happy to!
Many other bee puns ensued between us as we worked out the details. Three main themes emerged for the article:
1. Keeping honeybee hives is ceratinly a growing hobby in our fair city, and many other places around the country. Did you know there are hives on top of the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle, as well as on top of Chicago City Hall and on the grounds of Michelle Obama’s White House (where they also grow hops, and make their own Honey Ale)?
There’s always quite a buzz at the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association meetings, their president Krista Conner told me, where membership is steadily growing. (If you’re interested in becoming a beek, as they call themselves, the free and open meetings always start with a beginner’s lesson.)
One of my former neighbors hosted a hive in her backyard, and the whole street benefited from the extra pollination, as well as the tasty honey samples. Bees, it seems, are the next step after chickens for urban farmers.
2. Honeybees aren’t the only pollinator on the planet. Well, gardeners know that, but to be more specific, there are other types of bees that can help fill the gap if there aren’t enough honeybees around (more on that topic in a moment). Here in the maritime Northwest, we can get help from the orchard mason bee.
This mild-mannered native bee is one of a type called solitary bees because they don’t live in colonies and make hives like social bees. They nest in holes in old trees (or holes in wood blocks or tubes that we provide for them). They exist in much smaller quantities than honeybees (a hundred would be a lot in a home gardener’s mason bee blocks compared to upwards of fifty thousand in a hive at the height of summer).
But they are much more industrious pollinators than honeybees, said Dave Hunter of Crown Bees in Woodinville, who’s also the president of the Orchard Bee Association and spoke to me for the article. More people are taking up the habit of hosting mason bees as well, and you’ll see bee supplies and cocoons for sale in local nurseries and hardware stores.
3. Bee populations are in trouble. Anyone paying attention to bees has heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is the term coined by scientists to describe the mysterious dying-out of honeybees that has become such a widespread problem that it is threatening some of our crop supplies.
Massive quantities of bees in hives are shipped to prime agricultural regions, where they are unleashed to pollinate the crops at the right moment, then moved to other fields as the next crops come into flower.
On the West Coast, the itinerant bee workers get busy first in California’s almond orchards in early spring, then work their way north until they’ve hit the fruit orchards of Washington.
Some people insist that CCD is due to pesticides, an assertion that I investigated for the article. In fact, the European Union is considering a ban on suspected pesticides (see this Reuter’s report from March 2013). But in reviewing the work of USDA’s Agricultural Resaerch Service, the EPA and others, and through an interview with a leading expert, WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard, who has spent his life working with, studying and teaching about bees, I came away unsure that there is one smoking gun.
The explanation that seems logical to me is that the bee population is under a lot of environmental stressors, from the neonicitinoid class of pesticides to genetics to viruses to the menacing Varroa destructor mite. “It’s probably a combination of factors,” Sheppard told me, citing a recent paper that linked 61 factors that affected colony health and CCD.
There were also three takeaways that gave me hope for turning around our dwindling supply of bees.
1. Scientists are arming beekeepers with more knowledge and tools. Better hive management, treatment of diseases, and more diversity in queen breeding show promise.
2. Backyard beekeepers can help. Hosting mason bees and working with people like Hunter who plan to introduce orchard bees on a large scale to agriculture could eventually offer another path for farmers than renting honeybee hives.
3. Awareness of the problems caused by these pesticides might cause changes to their industrial use. Although there’s a movement in Europe to ban the “neonics,” Sheppard thinks it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do so in the U.S. However, application practices are getting a review.
The EPA is studying the level at which bees are affected, so my hope is they will revise their labeling to account for the sub-lethality on bees, rather than just base the allowable application on the lethal-dose level.
Also, one of the pesticides, clothianidin, is applied to the seed, but when the seed is planted, a powdery talc is used to lubricate the seed to get it through the planting machines. Sheppard says that talc, which becomes airborne in the fields, is super-toxic and has been shown to kill bees. If the application method can be changed, perhaps its toxicity would drop.
Gardeners and farmers must pay attention to the bee problem. The viability of some agricultural crops is dependent upon bees, but more than that, our ecosystem of pollinators and reliant plants has gotten out of sync, and it’s very likely caused by us.
Bees put the sweetness in our gardens, and not just by providing honey. My hope is that we will solve CCD and the honeybee problem, but also build a population of native bees for our gardens and farms that will help put the system back in balance.
Workshop alert: Do you want to learn beekeeping basics from the experts? Maybe find out how to make a “bee beard”? Learn that and much more at a WSU beekeeping short course on June 14-15 in Pullman. It will cover pest and disease identification and management, queen rearing and yes, a bee-beard demo.
The beekeeping craze has urban farmers buzzing, and I wrote about the trend for this month’s Sound Consumer, the newspaper from PCC Natural Markets. It’s available in all the stores as well as mailed to members.
And here are
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a couple of my close-up photos of a honeybee wallowing in sunflower pollen.