Are the bees all right? Maybe, Maybe not. But possibly the trend of urban beekeeping can save them.
As colony collapse continues, sparking speculation that cell phone radiation may be one of the culprits, and a certain native bumblebee was recently formally petitioned to be protected under The Endangered Species Act, it looks as if our pollinators are in trouble.
This could be devastating for our food supply. Honeybees are used to pollinate commercial plantings of almonds, cucumbers, squash, melons, strawberries and many other crops. With colony collapse disorder continuing to be a problem, some farmers are using native bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse crops like tomatoes.
At the same time, beekeeping and honey sales are up in both the U.S. and Europe.
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) said there are now more than 80,000 hives registered in Britain, compared to 40,000 in 2007.
Beekeeping is such a craze in Germany that beekeepers are stealing hives from one another.
And in the United States, beekeeping is a hot trend, that some forward-thinking cities like Dayton, OH, are beginning to work bees into planning and zoning regulations, even while the practice remains illegal in cities like New York.
Can small-scale beekeepers save our pollinators? It’s quite possible. One study found that urban bees are more productive than rural bees and are healthier because they are not exposed to the same levels of damaging pesticides as rural bees.
Perhaps you’re ready to go beyond living in harmony with the bees in your yard and graduate to raising your own colony.
Where do you start? I caught up with urban beekeeper Staci Valentine to get the goods on raising bees. Staci, a year into her adventure, is relatively new to the art of beekeeping herself, making her the ideal person to introduce beginners to beekeeping.
Staci is a chef, professional photographer, and urban farmer who lives in a house located just below the Hollywood sign. Her backyard is unusually large, hence, the farm. Staci can usually be found creating glorious dishes for her private chef business clients from the organic ingredients foraged on her urban farm, tending to her ever-growing number of beehives and photographing the wonders of life. She will soon launch her pop-up bakery in Los Angeles.
What was the spark that first got you into beekeeping?
It really started at age five when my grandmother slathered honey on my morning waffle. I distinctly remember my senses awakening. The scent of the honey mixed with the melting butter on the crisp waffle and then the flavor exploding in my mouth. I was hooked at that moment and somehow knew that bees would play an important role in my life. However, it wasn’t until about five years ago when a colony of bees built their home in my garden wall. When I learned that my landlord was set to exterminate them because he was told they were “˜killer bees’, I called a local beekeeper to help me move them from the garden wall to my newly purchased house. Many exterminators use the term “˜killer bees’ as a scare tactic.
How long have you been keeping bees?
It’s been a year now. I currently have four super busy hives and have empty hives waiting for when I get a call to pick up a swarm.
What is your favorite fact about bees?
Gosh, there are many but one that is not too well known is that the scent of bananas is similar to a bees alarm pheromone. So the scent could very well trigger them to sting. Needless to say, I don’t seem to be eating too many bananas these days.
Is it true that the girl bees do all the work? Do you think that applies to life as well?
It is indeed true that the girl bees do all of the work because the worker bees are all female. The hive consists of the queen, her workers, and drones (the male bees). The workers are the ones that make most things happen in and out of the hive. The key responsibility of the male is to wait in designated drone “˜meeting areas’ and mate with a virgin queen from a different hive. Once they mate, his privates are ripped from his abdomen and he plunges to his death. Not a fun fate.
I do believe that in many cases, the female makes everything run like clockwork in a home.
Have you been stung and have you ever panicked when the bees swarmed?
I have been stung but not since I’ve been keeping bees. I always wear my protective gear when working with them, which consists of a veil, gloves and white coveralls, which are tucked into gardening boots. I’ve never panicked when bees are swarming. This is when they are the most docile because they are looking for a new home. Once they settle at a location they send scout bees out to find a suitable new location. There is typically a short window before they find their new home and this is the time that I get calls to pick up a swarm.
I have heard the behavior of bee colonies be compared to “one mind” is this true in your experience?
I think bees function as an amazing cooperative and people should learn more from them. At various steps of their short lives, the workers graduate to different tasks in and out of the hive. There is no resentment, just a shared responsibility to create a thriving colony.
What is the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen bees do?
I was emptying a box of 40,000 bees into their new home. First, I placed a white sheet in the area I was working so that if the queen fell onto the ground, I could spot her and place her inside the hive. Once the queen is safely inside the hive, appointed worker bees will raise their little tushies in the air at the entrance to the hive and fan furiously. This releases their queen’s pheromones into the air and all of the bees belonging to the colony start marching into their new home. It’s an amazing sight to behold.
For people interested in keeping bees, what kind of time and monetary investment can they expect?
I say before even spending any money, observe another beekeeper to see if it is indeed something you’d like to do. You can then decide whether or not you want to purchase the protective gear, which I highly recommend. I’ve listed approximate prices.
When I first started I purchased the following:
Veil: I purchased a veil separate from the coveralls. They do make some veils that attach to the coverall. This is all a matter of preference. ($30 – $75.00)
Thick fabric gloves $20.00
White coveralls: White is good because it’s reflective and it can get darn hot in the suit. $70.00
Smoker: (this is what you use to smoke the bees so they remain calm)
Hive tool: (to open the lid and separate hives/frames that are sticky with propolis) $6.00
Bee brush: $5.00
Hive boxes with tops, bottoms and frames: The price of these is all dependent on if you buy them unassembled or assembled and the size of the boxes. If you’re handy it’s definitely cheaper to buy unassembled. I like to paint my boxes (only the exterior never the interior) because this helps prevent them from weathering as quickly.
Once can also purchase bees, but I found the best way to get them is picking up a swarm. Swarms to be quite plentiful in the spring.
What is the most useful piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out?
When you are setting up the frames in your hives you either use frames that come with starter beeswax or you buy empty frames and make your own strips. The starter beeswax has its advantage because the bees have less to build before drawing out honeycomb.
The reason I decided to not go with the pre-made beeswax frames was because I could not verify that the beeswax was “˜clean’ i.e., did not have any chemicals in it.
And so I took a different approach. Someone had told me that all I needed to do was cut thin strips of cardboard or wood, glue them into the tops of the frames and the bees would start making their own comb on the cardboard or wood. What I later learned is that “˜painting’ the cardboard or wood strips really is what does it. I think my first bees left because they didn’t want to build honeycomb on raw cardboard. I’ve tried the “˜painted’ method now in several hives and it seems to have done the trick.
There is still so much in the news about colony collapse disorder, and recently, the story about cell phone radiation being a possible cause. Then there is the decline in native bee populations. It’s interesting considering the rising tide of individual, small-scale beekeepers. Do you think individual beekeepers can save our pollinators?
I think if enough people become interested in beekeeping it can make a difference. It’s about putting a voice to something and that is why education is so incredibly important. People like Michael Pollan and films like Food Inc. make an impact. I feel that much of the problem is because of all of the horrific fertilizers and pesticides that we are putting on our crops. Of course it’s hurting the bees – and it’s hurting us as well.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.
Images: Staci Valentine