Interview: Helping Honeybees

  • Honey bees pollinate a wide variety of crops throughout the growing season. (Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Honeybees are in trouble. They’ve been pestered by invasive mites. There are concerns about how agricultural chemicals might be affecting bees. And in recent years there’s been growing concern about the disappearance of honeybees. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. Lester Graham talked with Christy Hemenway with Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath, Maine. Gold Star manufactures bee hives for beekeepers.

Transcript

Honeybees are in trouble. They’ve been pestered by invasive mites. There are concerns about how agricultural chemicals might be affecting bees. And in recent years there’s been growing concern about the disappearance of honeybees. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. Lester Graham talked with Christy Hemenway with Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath, Maine. Gold Star manufactures bee hives for beekeepers.

Lester Graham: Beekeepers expect to lose about fifteen percent of their bees over the winter, but for the past four years a survey by the USDA and the Apiary Inspectors of America has found that winter die-off has been about thirty percent. What’s going on here?

Christy Hemenway: Good question. One of the trickiest things about the Colony Collapse Disorder that most people have heard something about…is it’s difficult to study because it’s primary symptom is that the bees simply disappear from the hive. So there’s not a lot left behind to take to the lab and look at the details. So its primary symptom being that they disappear then the question would be why? and where are they going? That leaves us looking at conditions that bees are being raised in, and what are we doing to them, and with them, and it has left a lot of people scratching their heads, you might say. I think that a shift in the way we look at bees and possibly in the way we farm. If we were to begin farming in a way that supported bees it would begin to eliminate a lot of these things that are sort of dog-piling because it’s just a lot to ask a small insect to carry. And if we could do one less thing wrong, or one thing a little less wrong, then I think that we could really start to turn the tide.

Graham: When you say change farming, what do you mean by that?

Hemenway: Well the idea of industrial agriculture, or mono-cropping, where we’re growing, for instance, if you want to pick on a pretty large target, the California almond groves–it’s about 700-thousand acres of nothing but almonds. It creates an interesting situation. First off, you have to understand that almond trees bloom for just about 22 days out of the year. So if you’re a bee living in the middle of 700-thousand acres of almond trees, what do you plan to eat for the other three hundred and forty-some days of the year? So we’ve created the migratory pollination situation by having to bring bees in to these trees because there’s no way for them to be supported for the rest of the year. So if you’re farm is diverse and has things that bloom throughout the course of the bee season, when you’ve got warm enough weather, then you’re gonna find that your bees have got something to do, and something to eat, something to forage on all year round instead of for twenty two days which means you’ve gotta get ‘em out of there after that twenty-two days.

Graham: Short of keeping bees, is there anything else we can do that can help this situation?

Hemenway: Buy raw local honey from a local beekeper, maybe at a farmer’s market. That’s a great beginning. Another thing is: let your dandelions stand. Dandelions are fantastic–

Graham: Really?

Hemenway: Oh yeah, that’s great bee food, and it’s also some of the earliest food of the season. So don’t run out there with the lawnmower or the weed killer at the first sign of a dandelion, let that stuff go. Because it’s just natural, easy food, you don’t have to plant things for bees, the stuff that comes up all on it’s own is great stuff. So if you’re in any situation where you can let a lawn go a little more towards a meadow instead of a sculpted, barren, green bee-desert, do that. It’s really a wonderful thing to watch happen, first of all, and it’s just good for bees, to let them have that natural forage.

Graham: I’d love you to talk to my neighbors, that would be great.

Hemenway: Why, are they mowing down their dandelions?

Graham: Well they’re frowning at mine, let’s put it that way.

Hemenway: Oh, shame on them.

Graham: Christy Hemenway is with Gold Star Honeybees, thanks very much for talking with us.

Hemenway: You bet, thank you.

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Honeybee Die-Offs

  • Researcher Dennis VanEngelsdorp says the rates of honeybee die-offs threaten the beekeeping business. (Photo courtesy of the NBII)

Beekeepers expect about fifteen percent of their bees to die every winter. But for the past few winters they’ve seen die-offs of thirty percent or more. Mark Brush reports on a new survey that’s keeping track of honeybee losses:

Transcript

Beekeepers expect about fifteen percent of their bees to die every winter. But for the past few winters they’ve seen die-offs of thirty percent or more. Mark Brush reports on a new survey that’s keeping track of honeybee losses:

This is the fourth year in a row that beekeepers have see die-offs this high. The survey was done by the USDA and the Apiary Inspectors of America.

Dennis VanEngelsdorp was one of the researchers who conducted the survey. He says the rates of honeybee die-offs threaten the beekeeping business – and that’s important because honeybees pollinate about a third of the foods we eat:

“If we want to produce fruits and vegetables in this country, we need to have honeybees and we need a pollination force. And without those, we won’t be able to produce those in this country. So we’re not going to starve, but certainly the variety in our diet will change.”

Most of the beekeepers blamed the latest deaths on bad weather in the fall and winter. VanEngelsdorp says you can add to that habitat destruction that hurts the bees’ food supplies; invasive mites that spread disease – and the still unexplained problem of Colony Collapse Disorder.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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A Bee by Any Other Name

  • Experts say beekeeping is an important line of defense against killer bees. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA)

Africanized Honeybees – also known
as killer bees – are moving farther
north. The hybridized bees escaped
from a lab in Brazil in the 1950s.
Mark Brush reports:

Transcript

Africanized Honeybees – also known
as killer bees – are moving farther
north. The hybridized bees escaped
from a lab in Brazil in the 1950s.
Mark Brush reports:

These bees have established themselves in a number of states throughout the southern U.S. They spread naturally and they are spread through trade. The bees can hide out in shipping containers. One swarm was found inside the engine compartment of a new car.

Now, despite the nick name “killer bee” – experts say, yes they’ll defend their nest with more gusto – but the killer bee name is just hype.

Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman is a bee expert with the USDA. She says it’s likely that the bees will keep spreading – but beekeeping is an important line of defense against Africanized honeybees.

“You know, beekeepers, whether they’re small or large, are really the buffer between African bees and the public, because they keep pure European bees.”

DeGrandi-Hoffman says – Africanized or not – bees are still a critical part of our food system because they pollinate so many of our food crops.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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The Bee Man of Brooklyn

  • John Howe keeps bees on the roof of his Brooklyn townhouse. (Photo by Samara Freemark)

Beekeeping is a growing hobby – there
are even a couple of hives on the White
House lawn. And beekeeping is even getting
popular in America’s largest, most urban
city – New York. The only problem is,
beekeeping is actually illegal in New York.
Samara Freemark went to find
out why some New Yorkers are doing it anyway:

Transcript

Beekeeping is a growing hobby – there
are even a couple of hives on the White
House lawn. And beekeeping is even getting
popular in America’s largest, most urban
city – New York. The only problem is,
beekeeping is actually illegal in New York.
Samara Freemark went to find
out why some New Yorkers are doing it anyway:

When I first got in touch with the Gotham City Honey Co-op and told them I wanted to do a story on beekeeping in New York, they were a little nervous about talking with me. They were worried about a New York City health code that makes urban beekeeping illegal. The city’s worried about people getting stung. The Honey Co-op didn’t want to blow anyone’s cover, but eventually they did hook me up with John Howe.

Howe keeps bees on the roof of his Brooklyn townhouse – which means every day – several times a day, actually – he climbs four flights of stairs and one shaky ladder to get up to his hives.

“I gotta go up the ladder. I’m getting tired of it.”

(sound of roof opening)

“Turned out to be a nice day.”

Howe keeps two hives. He says there could be up to 150,000 bees in them.

“You can see them all going in and out. Lot of bees, yeah.”

Honey bees can fly up to three miles from their hives, looking for flowers to pollinate. Howe’s bees probably buzz by thousands of his neighbors every day. I asked him if anyone ever complained about them or called authorities to turn him in for illegal beekeeping. Howe said his neighbors are actually pretty cool with the bees.

“I give them free honey, so that helps. People just raise their eyebrow or shrug and say, ‘that’s neat.’ They call me bee man. I walk down the street, they say, ‘hey bee man, you got any honey?’”

Across town, Roger Repahl raises honeybees in the garden of a church in the South Bronx. He started beekeeping ten years ago, when local gardeners noticed that their vegetables weren’t getting pollinated.

“The community gardeners were complaining that they were getting a lot of flowers but very little fruit. So Greenthumb – that’s the community gardening wing of the parks department – Greenthumb said that’s because you don’t have enough pollinators in the South Bronx.”

So Repahl trucked some hives down from Vermont, and he says the bees pretty much solved the neighborhood’s pollination problem.

Now, this is the kind of story that gets beekeepers like John Howe pretty steamed up about New York’s anti-beekeeping laws. Like a lot of cities, New York is doing just about everything it can to encourage community gardening. But to grow your own food, you need insects to pollinate your plants. John Howe says banning honeybees is like banning local food.

“The best reason for making bees legal is that they pollinate so many plants. The more bees that we can raise and keep, the more chance we have of having food.”

It’s not quite that clear cut. At least, that’s what James Danoff Burg says. He studies insects at Columbia University. He says there are native bugs that do plenty of pollinating. Beetles, for example, and other kinds of bees like honeybees. And those native species are being driven out by honey bees, which are originally from Europe.

“I think it’s a mixed bag. They have benefits to people, for certain. And from a human perspective, if all you’re concerned about is that your plants get pollinated and you can get the fruits that come from that, it’s a pure positive bag. The negative part of that mixed bag comes when you start to think about native biodiversity.”

But Danoff Burg says preserving native biodiversity maybe doesn’t matter so much in a place like New York. The city’s ecosystem has already been changed so much, and there are other, more wild places where native insects can thrive.

So even though NY is America’s biggest city, it might also be the best place in the country to raise bees. As long as you keep them out of sight of the law.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Hard Times for Honeybees

  • (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA)

Beekeepers are continuing to lose their honeybees. About a third of many beekeepers’ colonies have been dying mysteriously each year for the past several years. Rebecca Williams reports researchers think they’re getting closer to an answer:

Transcript

Beekeepers are continuing to lose their honeybees. About a third of many beekeepers’ colonies have been dying mysteriously each year for the past several years. Rebecca Williams reports researchers think they’re getting closer to an answer:

Honeybees have had some bad luck.

Researchers think there are a couple of things hurting the bees all at once.

They think bees’ immune systems are being weakened.

Maybe because of pesticides. And maybe because bees aren’t getting the variety of food sources they need.

Bees normally collect pollen and nectar from many different plants. But when they’re used on farms, they’re just visiting one kind of plant.

And then on top of that, bees appear to be getting hit by a virus.

Maryann Frazier is a honeybee expert at Penn State University.

She says, until researchers can figure out exactly what’s going on, she expects beekeepers to keep losing a lot of their bees.

“I think what we’re at risk of, more so than the bees dying out, is the beekeepers giving up and not continuing to truck their bees all over the country.”

Beekeepers use honeybees to pollinate about a third of our food supply.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Beekeeper Points Finger at Pesticides

  • One theory behind the bee loss is pesticides (Photo by Robert Flynn, courtesy of the USDA)

Honeybees are dying at an alarming rate.
Some beekeepers have lost their entire hives.
It’s been tough for food growers too. That’s
because honeybees pollinate up to a third of
the foods we eat. Mark Brush checked in with
a commercial beekeeper to see how pollinating
is going this year:

Transcript

Honeybees are dying at an alarming rate.
Some beekeepers have lost their entire hives.
It’s been tough for food growers too. That’s
because honeybees pollinate up to a third of
the foods we eat. Mark Brush checked in with
a commercial beekeeper to see how pollinating
is going this year:

“Well, there’s twelve months on the calendar and I think we’re busy for thirteen of ’em.”

That’s Dave Hackenburg. He trucks his bees year-round all over the country to pollinate
crops. He says, so far, there have been enough bees to cover most of the crops. But with
bees continuing to die – he’s not sure how much longer beekeepers can keep up.

Hackenburg is convinced that pesticides – known as nicotinoids – are behind the loss in
honeybees.

“I can lay down a road map where bees have been – that have been on these crops where
these products are used – within two to three months afterwards – we start to see the
colonies collapse. Bees that didn’t go to these crops, set out in the woods, away from pesticides, are doing fine.”

Researchers are investigating pesticides as one possible cause. They’re also looking at
viruses, stress, and a lack of genetic diversity as other possibilities.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Urban Beekeepers Creating a Buzz

  • Beekeeper Rich Wieske started with two hives in downtown Detroit. Now he manages more than one hundred throughout the city and its suburbs. (Photo courtesy of Rich Wieske, by Rebecca Cook)

Honeybees are dying. Sometimes entire hives
are dying and scientists can’t figure out exactly why.
Some people are trying to help, and one of the ways
they’re helping is by becoming beekeepers. Rebecca
Williams reports there are some beekeepers who actually
raise bees in big cities:

Transcript

Honeybees are dying. Sometimes entire hives
are dying and scientists can’t figure out exactly why.
Some people are trying to help, and one of the ways
they’re helping is by becoming beekeepers. Rebecca
Williams reports there are some beekeepers who actually
raise bees in big cities:

Some people call them guerrilla beekeepers. They like to keep their hive locations a secret. That’s
so the neighbors won’t get worried about 60,000 bees living next door.

There are white beehive boxes on rooftops in Paris, Chicago, Manhattan. And there are beehives
tucked into open lots in the middle of downtown Detroit.

(traffic and other neighborhood sounds)

Rich Wieske has been raising bees here for eight years.

“You think of cities as buildings. Detroit’s a little different because there’s been a lot of homes
bulldozed and torn down so there’s a lot of open fields – great for bees!”

Bees have a lot to eat in the city. They love the pollen and nectar from backyard gardens.

Rich Wieske’s just gotten a shipment of bees from California. Today he’s installing new worker
bees and queens into his hives in the corner of an empty lot. He’s one of the people trying to
replace the bees that are mysteriously dying.

This shipment of bees comes packed in wooden boxes – sort of like big shoeboxes – and there are
about 9,000 bees to a box.

(Buzzing)

“Don’t move fast but be warned okay?”

Wieske gives the box a big shake. No kidding – he’s shaking the box of 9,000 bees. They pour
into the hive in a bright orange stream. The bees buzz by our heads, and land in my hair, and fly
up my sleeves.

(buzzing)

But Rich Wieske promises the honeybees are not out to get us. They’d actually rather not sting,
because then they die.

Wieske has a hive he suspects is a little worked up. So he gets out the smoker. It looks like the
love child of a watering can and a miniature accordion. It sends out little puffs of white smoke.

(puffing noises)

“I use lavender, sage, any dried herbs. Also those
chips you find in the bottom of a gerbil cage.”

He waves the smoker around the hive before he lifts the cover off. He says the puffs of smoke
calm the bees down. It covers up the alarm pheromone bees give off, which apparently smells like
bananas if you’re unlucky enough to smell it.

Wieske got into beekeeping with two hives, and now he’s got more than a hundred.

“You’ve got to watch beekeepers. A lot of them become missionaries. You can tell a beekeeper because they love talking about bees, and they’ll talk to anybody about bees
and try to get them to become beekeepers.”

Wieske has a lot of apprentices.

(goose honking)

The next stop on our bee tour is a working farm – right in the middle of downtown Detroit.

Rich Wieske is helping his understudies install new bees in the hives. He’s giving Adam Verville
the same lesson he gave me earlier.

“This is the sort-of scary part.”

(shaking box and buzzing)

Verville says a lot of his friends keep bees in the city.

“People don’t have much money. These projects supplement our incomes essentially by giving us
food and honey.”

There is a lot of honey in beekeeping. Not a whole lot of money though. But the beekeepers say
they feel like they’re part of something bigger.

Stephen Buchmann is a bee expert. He coordinates the group Pollinator Partnership. He says
honeybees pollinate a third of the food grown in the United States. So every beekeeper replacing
disappearing bees helps.

“By having
thousands of people all over the country doing this they have a significant impact on pollinator
declines.”

Buchmann says you don’t have to raise bees in your backyard to help out. He says you can plant
flowers that bees like – like sunflowers and lavender. You can cut down on pesticides in your
yard or use none at all. And you can support your own urban beekeepers by buying local honey.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Life Not So Sweet for Honeybees

  • Honeybees have been dying at a rapid pace for the second year in a row. (Photo by Rob Flynn, courtesy of the USDA)

For the second year in a row, honeybees
are dying at a startling rate. Mark Brush reports
beekeepers are asking the public for help:

Transcript

For the second year in a row, honeybees are dying at a startling rate. Mark Brush reports
beekeepers are asking the public for help:

Farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate a lot of the food we eat – apples, blueberries,
almonds, soybeans – the list goes on and on.

Beekeepers are losing about a third of their hives each year. The sudden die-off is
known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Researchers are still trying to figure out what’s
making the bees sick.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp is the President of the Apiary Inspectors of America. He says
when the bees get sick, they fly away from the hive to die because they’re social
creatures.

“If you belong to a social group, you don’t want to infect your sisters. And so what we
think is happening. Is these bees somehow are aware that they’re ill, and so they’re flying
away from the colony to die away from the colony.”

vanEngelsdorp says you can help the honeybees by growing plants that bees like in your
backyard, by supporting local beekeepers by buying their honey, or by becoming a
beekeeper yourself.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Mite Zapper Might Help Bees

Beekeepers in the Midwest and elsewhere are turning to innovative ways to protect their hives from tiny, blood-sucking mites. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports, farmers depend on the health of commercial honeybee colonies:

Transcript

Beekeepers in the Midwest and elsewhere are turning to innovative ways to protect their hives
from tiny, blood-sucking mites. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports,
farmers depend on the health of commercial honeybee colonies:


Apples, cherries, and cucumbers are among the crops that depend on bees for pollination. But in
the mid-80’s, a parasite called varroa wiped out wild honeybees in the U.S. And the mites have
also taken a toll on commercial colonies as well.


The problem is especially serious in California. Almond growers there have had difficulties in
the last few years getting enough bees to pollinate their half-million acres of almond trees. But
Zachary Huang, a honeybee researcher at Michigan State University, says beekeepers in the
region still have about twice the number of bees needed to meet farmers’ demands.


“It’s not so bad yet that we’re having trouble getting bees to pollinate our fruit trees.”


Chemicals have been developed to kill the mites. But so far, they’ve proved only partly effective,
or the mites become resistant. Huang has patented a device called the “mite zapper” that kills the
parasites in the hives. He hopes to be able to market it to beekeepers next year.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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