Vanishing of the Bees update

I spent Saturday in Yakima at the “Vanishing Conference” presented by the Central Washington Beekeepers Association. Sponsored by fruit growers, Glory Bee Foods and Bee Culture Magazine, and Hagen Das (yay Hagen Das!), the conference brought together beekeepers who were featured in the film “The Vanishing of the Bees”. David Hackenburg, David Mendes, and Tom Theobald are all long-time beekeepers, and Marilyn Frazier is the Penn State researcher who they called when Colony Collapse Disorder first emerged.

The speakers noted that the idea this is a disorder implies there is a single cause. The situation they unfolded is significantly more complicated. Pesticides have been in use in this country for many decades. It may go without saying, but when you think about it, bees are bugs, so of course they will be affected by chemicals designed to kill bugs!

Pests and pathogens like varroa impacted the health of bees in the mid-1980s. Beekeepers thought many effects they were seeing were due to the mites. In retrospect, the symptoms now described as CCD began to be seen in the mid 1990s with the introduction of neonicitinoids, especially Imidacloprid, a systemic pesticide used to treat corn. Corn isn’t a pollinated crop, but that doesn’t mean there are bees on it. There are more bees collecting corn pollen than ever – corn pollen is very attractive to bees, and corn has replaced other forms of forage as more acreage is brought into corn to support the ethanol industry.

Beekeepers are seeing more than vanishing colonies. Queens are ceasing to lay at the end of summer, which means they will fail to produce winter bees. Colonies with adequate forage are simply failing to thrive.

The beekeepers who presented at the conference are desperately worried, not just about the bees, but about people. They say that bees are simply reflecting what is going on in the environment. They are describing not just the collapse of commercial beekeeping but the collapse of commercial agriculture under the weight of increasingly toxic chemicals. They feel that they are sending their bees out into an environment that is hostile to life. They worry that agriculture that kills bees must also be harming people.

Backyard beekeepers are not exempt from these effects. Do you have a cat or dog? Do you treat for fleas? Check the label – you might be using Imidacloprid yourself. This product is in use by home orchardists also. It’s tremendously toxic to bees, and persists in the environment for years after application. Pesticides are used extensively to spray for mosquitos to control West Nile virus and to control noxious weeds.

Backyard beekeepers and commercial beekeepers are all part of the same industry. We get our bees from commercial breeders. Researchers in the land grant universities like WSU and Penn State are focusing efforts on breeding a strain of bees hardy enough to manage some of these health impacts. This is where the small breeder, like Star Valley Apiary, can be helpful to the industry as a whole.

Now that I have attended this conference I can’t wait for the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference. Ted and I are going – this is going to be a very exciting event, encourage you to go too!

2012 Joint WAS-WSBA Conference

I’ve spent the last twwo days at a beekeeper’s conference. This year the state group, Washington State Beekeepers Association, combined its annual meeting with the regional Western Apiculture Society conference. Two days of talking bees with people who never get tired of talking about bees!

Presentations included a surprisingly diverse set of viewpoints. There were just a few old coots – the kind of ancient beekeeper who says “We’re getting the wives involved by having a honey cooking contest.” These were balanced out by the professional women in both the sciences and commercial beekeeping. Of 19 presenters, 7 were women, a pretty good percentage. In addition to researchers, commercial beekeepers, and organization officers, there were presenters who represented small businesses and emerging beekeeping approaches.

Some of the scientists present are luminaries in the field, including Dr. Steve Shephard and Dr. Sue Cobey from Washington State University, Ramesh Sigili of Oregon State University, and Dr. Gloria DeGrandi Hoffman from a USDA lab in Arizona. Dr. Shepard’s graduate students presented their proposed studies, funded and unfunded, all of which seemed worthwhile.

Eric Olson told a story that’s made the news. After losing 9000 hives in his California overwintering yards in 2011, he overwintered his hives this year in Controlled Atmosphere storage buildings and had virtually no losses. His emotional journey went from the lowest days to euphoria. WSU will study his hives this winter as well as their own hives in chambers in Pullman.

Don Aman moved to Central Washington to grow his own food, a journey which naturally led to keeping bees for honey. He is organizing a conference updating Vanishing of the Bees in Yakima Sat. Oct. 13.

Urban beekeeper Bob Redmond linked the development of beekeeping with the development of cities. He addressed the issues of human population explosion and resource depletion, and notes the need to develop urban agriculture, including bees.

The most exciting presentation for me was Melanie Kirby’s discussion of the Rocky Mountain Survivor Queen Bee Co-op. Kirby started keeping bees 15 years ago in top bars as a Peace Corps volunteer. Today she owns a commercial business and organized the collective with other New Mexico and Colorado beekeepers, some top bar, all women so far. They are raising queens and swapping genetic material to build sturdy queen stock..

Every convention has vendors. This one had Mann Lake, Glory Bees, and lots of others. I picked up books, T-shirts, and a DVD I haven’t seen before on organic beekeeping.

I’m still assimilating the impact of so many perspectives on my own thinking. I would love to attend an organic beekeeping conference to see if the perspectives there are different – or as diverse!

Pollination in Kitsap County

Every summer gardeners and farmers call West Sound Beekeepers and Stedman’s Bee Supplies looking for pollination services – usually for free! This year I’ve talked to several farmers who were interested in having someone put a honeybee hive on their property for pollination. As we talked I realized that there is very little public awareness of the basic facts about honeybee pollination in general and Kitsap in particular. Everyone has the romantic notion that bees can make honey from their acre of flowers. If only it were that easy!

Here’s a quick primer on honeybee pollination for any farmer or gardener.

Honeybees forage up to three miles for nectar.

No garden or farm in Kitsap is large enough to support even one small honeybee colony. For beekeepers that’s good news, it means you don’t have to worry about providing forage to keep bees. For farmers and gardeners it’s bad news, it means that your farm or garden provides a small percentage of what the bees will actually need to collect. Also, it means that the bees will be exposed to the pesticides that your neighbors are using in a three-mile radius.

Honeybees make honey from nectar.

Bees forage for quite a few substances. Most flowers give pollen, which honeybees make into a nutritious substance we call bee bread; in any given three-mile area in Kitsap there are quite a few different pollen sources. Bee bread however is a small part of what they eat. They mainly subsist on honey, and they don’t make honey from pollen, but from plants that give nectar.

In Kitsap the major nectar source is blackberries.

We have a few minor nectar sources – spring maple trees, late summer knapweed and fireweed. However our major varietal is blackberry, so much so that beekeepers talk about “nectar flow” when the blackberry blossoms open in June, and “nectar dearth” when the blossoms give out in July. That’s the end of the nectar gathering season here. If you miss that, you won’t have honey.

Kitsap agriculture is centered on small farms and urban farms that don’t offer nectar sources. The situation is different elsewhere. For example, in Clallam County around Sequim where there are major lavender farms, beekeepers routinely set up apiaries in the fields, and collect lavender honey, which is often sold straight from the farm’s store.

By the way – this means that poison intended to control blackberries risks bees. Whatever you do, don’t spray the blackberry flowers! That will kill all the bees that might pollinate your veggies and fruits.

Bees are livestock and need feeding and inspection.

When the nectar flow stops, the bees still need nectar to make into honey to get through the winter. Beekeepers feed a sugar water solution from quart jars and replace the jars once a week or more from mid-August to October.

Bees also get diseases, some of which are easy to treat, others which are dangerous and difficult. Beekeepers inspect their colonies for signs of disease as well.

Kitsap County beekeeping is largely backyard beekeeping.

Kitsap beekeepers are generally hobbyists. Bees do give honey and other products for sale, but if you are going to have a honey business you have to be good at it, lucky, and invest quite a few years make a profit.

Our apiary is right outside the shop, where we can look through the window at the hives, and can pop out to replace jars of feed or inspect hives for disease at any minute of the day. Hobbyist beekeepers love watching the bees! We visit each other’s apiaries too.

We don’t generally pick up our hives and take them anywhere. Transporting a hive means securing the entrance, breaking apart the boxes which stack to make the parts of the hive, and hauling a box of 10,000 or more bees from one place to another. Generally in Kitsap beekeepers only move bees to follow a nectar flow, specifically to get to the mountains for fireweed.

Moving a hive to someone else’s property exposes the hive to the risks of that property, makes it more difficult to feed and monitor for disease, and deprives the beekeeper of the ongoing pleasure of watching the bees, which in Kitsap is pretty much the whole payoff. For that reason hobbyists are not good candidates to provide pollination services.

Honeybee pollination is a commercial service.

Commercial pollinators travel to California for almond pollination. Three-quarters of the honeybees in the country converge on the almond trees in February (that’s the source of many ills, but that subject needs its own post). Going rate in 2012 was $155 per hive for the duration of the almond flowering, one month at most. Eastern Washington beekeepers take their colonies to the almond groves, then back to the orchards for spring pollination, bringing in another $60 or so for rental of the same hive.

Resources to investigate commercial pollination – to buy or sell!

Grow your own

With no local commercial services, and no real benefit to hobbyists to provide pollination, the best option for gardeners and farmers is to grow your own bees.

Option one: become a beekeeper

It’s not as hard as you might think. The initial investment is about $200 per hive, and you’ll need two, plus about $100 in clothing and other gear. The local club, West Sound Beekeepers Association, regularly teaches beginner classes. The club is oriented to mentoring and has many knowledgeable members. It’s also very open to experimentation and new methods of beekeeping. The time investment isn’t all that onerous, especially if you take the natural beekeeping route. I know a farmer who dumps a package of bees into his warre hive every year and leaves them alone for the rest of the year.

Option two: offer an attractive outyard

There is at least one beekeeper in Kitsap who has a large enough operation to need to place bees outside their property. Other beekeepers are becoming interested in establishing an outyard to mitigate the risk of a single poison kill destroying the entire apiary, as happened to one county beekeeper this year when a neighbor sprayed blackberry flowers (don’t do this!)

If you’re going to set up an outyard for a beekeeper, here’s what will make it attractive:

  • Easy access. The beekeeper has to be able to drive up to the hive at any time to bring equipment to the hive.
  • Assistance. The beekeeper I know who is placing hives in outyards requires that the landowner feed the bees through nectar dearth. This isn’t particularly hazardous and is normally done without protective clothing.
  • Be knowledgeable. There are many pressures on bees, in particular new waves of diseases that threaten the honeybee population. The more you know, the easier it will be for you to connect with the beekeeper.

Setting up an outyard is a great way to partner with a beekeeper. If you’re not all that interested in beekeeping, you just want your crops to be pollinated, your best option is to establish native bee habitat.

Option three: provide native habitat

If beekeeping simply isn’t for you, you’re in luck! Washington state has literally hundreds of native bees. If you provide even a small amount of habitat you will have bees throughout the entire year.

WSU list of resources on pollination

Farming for Bees, Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms

Native bees have some advantages over honeybees and some disadvantages. Disadvantages: you remember the honeybee travels 3 miles to forage, while native bees only fly a few hundred feet from their habitat. Honeybees also forage throughout the year, while each native bee has a limited season. Advantages: native bees tend to fly in slightly cooler temperatures than honeybees and take moist weather a little better. Also, of course, you don’t have to feed native bees! Providing habitat is quite a bit less expensive than buying wooden hives too.

Whichever route you choose, blackberries – invasive as well as native – just went from weed to pollination partner! Good luck, and don’t hesitate to talk to the bee club or a master gardener, we’re always happy to point you to educational resources.