A local approach to the global concern of saving the honeybee population
The shade provided by an immense backyard ash tree was a primary reason behind the purchase of my East Dayton home in 2006. Sadly, due to clear Emerald Ash Borer damage, I had no choice but to summon my friend and DCP advertiser Sam Batman to cut it down last June. What I did not expect was an interesting telephone call from Sam in the middle of the project.
“Paul, I temporarily stopped the work because I need to know what you want to do about a bee hive in your tree.”
“What can we do?” I asked.
“We can call a beekeeper and they can come and get the hive after we isolate that section of tree,” Sam explained.
Having no idea a hive could be transplanted I enthusiastically replied, “Yes! Please make it so!” The problem was I had to find the beekeeper.
Yes, the Internet is amazing. In less than five minutes, I found the website for the Greene County Beekeepers Association and simply called everyone I could on their list. I finally connected with Mike and Deidre Bakan who took quick action to successfully help save these bees. Yes, it was worth it.
The Bakans are on the Greene County Beekeepers Association (GCBA) Swarm List, a list of GCBA members – most of them amateur beekeepers and hobbyists – who are willing to collect bee swarms from areas where they are not wanted.
Swarms form when a second queen from an existing hive leaves, with many of the bees and honey from the existing hive in tow, and lands in a new place to begin populating a new hive.
What Paul Noah found in his backyard was not a swarm, but a small existing hive. Nevertheless, the Bakans were happy to collect the bounty. They took the bees back to their private apiary in Sugarcreek Township. Unfortunately, that particular hive was too small and had been collected too late in the summer to survive.
It’s common for bee hobbyists like the Bakans to get calls, and they’re happy for the work, because it provides free bees for their apiaries.
“I found that beehive rehabilitation is alive and well,” Noah said. “There’s a whole society of people in this area who do this.”
Indeed, noncommercial beekeeping is very much alive in the Dayton area, and there are a number of clubs available for those who are interested in becoming involved.
Terry Lieberman-Smith works closely with the GCBA and Miami Valley Beekeepers. She’s also the newsletter editor and vice president-elect of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association. Moreover, she’s a prime example of how tending to honeybees – a practice she calls “visiting the girls,” because worker bees are female – can become a lifelong passion.
“I guess the best way to describe it is there are times when we don’t want to go and visit the girls: I’m not in the mood, I have a headache or whatever,” Lieberman-Smith explained. “I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll go for 15 minutes,’ and I’ll go over the hill and go visit the girls and it’s two and a half hours later. I’ll just be in the groove. You can lose a whole afternoon that way.”
It’s a challenging hobby to say the least, and it requires a lot of research and dedication.
“Bees don’t swim, they don’t produce honey if there’s no nectar,” Lieberman-Smith said. “There are absolute facts of beekeeping. And then there’s that art, that they sound a little different [under certain conditions] or there are some [beekeepers] who are not far from other beekeepers who always get a honey crop, because they’re in tune with the hive. And there are those beekeepers who never quite fine tune that.”
Luckily, for those who are interested in taking the first steps toward setting up their own apiaries, local organizations like GCBA are here to help. Lieberman-Smith co-teaches beginning beekeeping classes with fellow beekeeper Bill Starrett through Greene County Parks & Trails. The class covers the basics: What is beekeeping? Where can bees be kept? How can they be managed? What kind of equipment is available? The course also prepares members to acquire bees in the spring.
“When I first started [beekeeping] I didn’t know anybody,” Lieberman-Smith said. “And I had no idea what to order, so I read everything online. I thought I knew what I was doing, I opened up the catalogue and my palms started sweating and I closed the catalogue.”
With six different styles of frame and 12 styles of wax to choose from, not to mention a plethora of other necessary equipment and considerations, beekeeping can be overwhelming for beginners. Starrett and Leiberman-Smith walk newbies through their orders, creating a bulk class order to ensure the best possible price. They teach them how to build their equipment, install packages of bees and so on. They even arrange hands-on experiences in the Observation Apiary at the Narrows Nature Center. There are also lessons on bee-related litigation – as unsupportive neighbors are often apt to blame beekeepers if they get stung. However, noncompliant neighbors are perhaps the least of a list of growing challenges posed to area beekeepers.
Next time you sit down to a colorful meal, you can thank the efforts of folks like the Bakans for a third of the food that’s on your plate. According to the Agricultural Research Service branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.
“Most beekeepers pollinate the world for free,” Lieberman-Smith said. “Because my bees fly in a three-mile radius, even if I planted the loveliest of gardens for them, they may say, ‘There’s something a little sweeter half a mile down the road. We’ll be back.’”
Honeybees fly in the early morning and throughout the day. They will come back home during the day, unload their honey basket and their pollen basket and then go out for more.
“They work for the hive,” Lieberman-Smith explained. “It is an organism – everyone has their part, everybody does it, they know exactly what to do. Everything is for the survival of the hive. They will go out and they look for the nectar that’s most sweet and they work one crop at a time.”
That means a bee pollinating apples won’t move over to a cherry – this keeps us from having hybrid apple-cherry fruits.
“So, for all of the farmers who are in a three-mile radius of me, who are growing apples or pumpkins, my bees will be going over there and helping them out,” Lieberman-Smith said.
They also pollinate the flowers and trees in parks and other public spaces. However, these helpful little pollinators and the people who tend them are encountering some big problems.
“Bees right now are in decline,” Mike Bakan said. “Twenty years ago in our area, we had a 10 percent loss rate through the winter. Over the past few years, we’re looking at 15 to 20 percent loss.”
In fact, last year, an informal area survey found local beekeepers suffering close to a 50 percent loss.
So, what’s to blame for these plummeting populations?
“It’s not just one thing,” Bakan said. “If it was one thing, the bees could probably survive.”
The population decline phenomenon, commonly called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has been the source of media coverage and agroscientific testing since 2006 (but it’s not the first time increased rates of population decline have been reported – similar phenomena occurred in the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1960s, according to the USDA).
CCD is responsible for the loss of more than 10 million beehives in North America since 2007, according to an article on usnews.com. If losses continue at the current rate, that one bite in three on your dinner plate could either disappear or come at a substantially higher cost.
Research has made progress in identifying a host of problems for the honey bee – even going so far as to accuse, before later reevaluating, cell phones and cell phone towers in connection with poor honeybee health.
One of the most widely-discussed threats to honeybee populations is the Varroa mite, which burrows through the hard honeybee exoskeleton.
“Imagine putting a dinner plate on your body,” Lieberman-Smith explained. “That’s the size of the hole on a bee. You’re not going to heal.”
Other problems are distinctly man-made.
“When people say ‘my garden isn’t doing well,’ it’s because most of the fertile colonies have died out,” Lieberman-Smith said. “And when you have towns near each other like Oakwood and Centerville that have a ban on beekeeping […] you have enough bans on beekeeping, and you won’t have any bees in a three-mile radius.”
But even those areas that freely welcome the honeybee’s helpful production may in fact be harming whole colonies. Pesticides used for eliminating Varroa mites, or controlling weeds – which are early food sources for bees – may also be responsible for contaminating bee hives. The new fashion in pesticides are chemicals called systematic pesticides which are implanted into the seeds or soil, so that the poison becomes part of the plant.
A toxic mix of pesticides and fungicides has been linked to bees’ inability to fight off a common gut parasite called Nosema Ceranae.
Years ago, farmers planted hedgerows, rows of thistles that attracted “good bugs,” which helped naturally control the “bad guys” in the field. But this practice has all but disappeared, because weeds are unsightly and chemicals are easier to use.
It doesn’t help the research being conducted in this area is often confusing, conflicting and rife with economic ramifications.
Bayer CropScience, the agricultural subgroup of the Bayer corporation, remains convinced that neonicotinoids (NNIs), a subcategory of systematic pesticides, can be used safely.
Chemical and seed giant, and everybody’s favorite agro-bad guy, Monsanto came under fire in the fall of 2012 for acquiring Beeologics, a small company aimed at developing an antiviral treatment for honeybees by blocking gene expression. Opponents – there are many – argue genetically modifying honeybees will not only fail to protect them from the major causes of CCD, but will also have untold effects on the humans who consume food pollinated by those bees.
Meanwhile, average winter colony losses continue to average about 33 percent a year, with the exception of winter 2011-2012, which reported losses at 22 percent, according to the USDA.
Beekeepers like Lieberman-Smith must pay out of pocket to replenish their hives – about $90 for a three-pound package of bees. It takes a lot of honey sales to recoup that loss.
What can we do?
It will take equal parts time and resources to properly investigate the population loss problem. But local actions may go a long way in solving this global problem.
“I get that not everyone wants to be a beekeeper,” Lieberman-Smith said. “But acknowledging them by spending money for local honey is a good start. It has a small carbon footprint, you can ask [beekeepers] about their bees and you’re supporting a local economy.”
But getting informed, if not getting involved, will go a long way.
“A lot of people who get into beekeeping become more aware of how you treat the environment and what you’re willing to do, as far as spraying or not spraying or what you’re going to put in your garden,” Lieberman-Smith said.
Thanks to the efforts of Lieberman-Smith, Starret and the Bakans, beekeeping in this area is thriving.
“There has been more awareness, and a lot of education,” Lieberman-Smith said. “The clubs have worked very hard to educate the public.”
GCBA has booths at the Greene County and Miami County fairs to educate people and promote local honey production.
“These are tiny things that may not sound significant,” Lieberman-Smith said “but for beekeepers they’re critical.”
And it’s like that with bees as well: those tiny things may not sound significant, but for us, they’re critical.
Beginning Beekeeping classes will be held Thursday evenings beginning Thursday, Feb. 13 from 7-8:30 p.m. at The Narrows Nature Center, 2575 Indian Ripple Road in Beavercreek. An overflow class may be offered on Saturdays if enrollment is sufficient. Registration, fees and additional information are available at Greene County Parks & Trails office by calling 937.562.6440 or online at co.greene.oh.us/parks.