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.

Related Links

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

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.

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.

Related Links

Study Supports Honeybee Dance Hypothesis

  • When foraging bees find food, they fly back to the hive and dance. (Photo by Jenny W.)

Bee researchers have long believed that honeybees use a special dance to show their hive-mates where food is. A study published in the journal Nature provides direct evidence that the dance works. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams explains:

Transcript

Bee researchers have long believed that honeybees use a special dance to
show their hive-mates where food is. A study published in the journal
Nature provides direct evidence that the dance works. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Rebecca Williams explains:


Honeybees have a complex way of talking about dinner. Forager bees fly out
of the hive in search of pollen and nectar. When they find something tasty,
they fly home to the hive and dance.


Researchers in England caught bees that had watched the dance and tagged
them with tiny radio trackers. Then they followed the bees’ exact flight
paths.


Joe Riley is lead author of the study. He says the research relieves some
doubts about how well honeybees interpret the dance.


“The only thing that was missing was a really convincing demonstration that
this happened. And what we saw what happened was they left the hive,
circled for a minute or two to get their bearings and then flew straight off
in this predicted direction and for the distance that was coded in the
dance.”


Riley says the bees do need a little help once they get close to the food
source: they have to look and sniff around to find the right flower.


For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Bee Keepers Struggle With Declining Markets

Its estimated that the U.S. honeybee industry generates about $8
million in annual revenue. But the industry has taken a serious
financial hit from a mite infestation. Honey bees are being killed and
honey production is down. You might think that would mean higher
prices for honey. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports, the price of honey has actually gone down: