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

Mysterious Disappearing Bees

  • Brownish-orange bumps on the backs of these bees are Varroa jacobsoni mites, a possible cause of CCD. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

Millions of honeybees across the country are dying
mysteriously. Entire hives or colonies of bees are
collapsing. Scientists say it’s some new threat. They’re scrambling to find answers.
As Bob Allen reports, bees are crucial in pollinating billions of dollars worth
of crops every spring:

Transcript

Millions of honeybees across the country are dying
mysteriously. Entire hives or colonies of bees are
collapsing. Scientists say it’s some new threat. They’re scrambling to find answers.
As Bob Allen reports, bees are crucial in pollinating billions of dollars worth
of crops every spring:


That fresh crisp apple you bite into for lunch comes from
a bee pollinating an apple blossom, but honeybees in the
U.S. are under tremendous stress. A new threat is
devastating them. It can wipe out entire colonies.


There’s plenty of honey still left in the hives to feed
the bees, but the bees have vanished. Scientists are
baffled. They’re calling it “Colony Collapse Disorder.”


Dennis van Englesdorp is bee inspector for the state of
Pennsylvania. He says the disorder first showed up in his
state last fall. But it’s now threatening the entire
beekeeping industry:


“We could not sustain the level of loss we’re seeing this
year several years in a row. And there are crops that are
90 to 100% reliant on honeybees for pollination. You need
bees for apples. And if you don’t have bees you don’t have
apples.”


A research team at Penn State University has given
themselves until fall to come up with some answers.


On a hilly farm in northern Michigan, Julius Kolarik raises
apples, cherries and honeybees. It’s a sunny day with the
temperature nudging near 50 degrees:


“So, no, it’s a beautiful day for bees. Makes you feel
good when you see bees flying. Makes me feel good
(laughs).”


This is the first time Kolarik has checked his bee yard
since fall. He uses his hive tool to pry the top off each
three-foot high colony to see how the bees are doing:


“We can see that they’re alive and that’s the main thing.”


It used to be considered an embarrassment if a beekeeper lost more
than 10% or so of his bees annually, but things have
gotten a lot tougher in recent years.


Parasitic mites have infested honeybees just about
everywhere. They’ve weakened the bees and left them
vulnerable to diseases and that’s meant annual losses
double what they used to be.


Now on top of that, there’s this new disorder. But Julius
Kolarik is not so sure how new it is. He’s been
raising honeybees since he was a kid:


“We’ve seen some of the same symptoms, so uh, through the
years. Even before we finally said that we have mites, uh.
We were getting unexplained losses. But now it’s come back
again. ‘Cause other years guys have lost whole yards but
left one or two hives.”


Bee researchers say previous outbreaks of colony collapse
were isolated incidents. This time it’s spread across the
country.


Tom McCormick’s small beekeeping operation supplies honey
to local markets in western Pennsylvania. That is, it did
until two years ago. That’s when he says collapsing
disorder killed half his colonies, so he bought more bees
to replace them. They did OK last year, but this spring
he’s looking at an 80% loss:


“To me it doesn’t make sense to go buy more bees and throw
them right back into the same situation without any idea
what the cause is.”


McCormick says two of his beekeeping friends have been
totally wiped out. And they’ve been seeing more than one
thing going on in their hives:


“One, we see hives full of honey and no bees. Totally
gone. We see other situations where we have a nice large
cluster of bees with honey all surrounding them and the
bees dead.”


When he reported this two years ago, he says, state
officials ignored him. Pennsylvania state beekeeper Dennis van Englesdorp admits
he thought McCormick had a serious mite problem at first.


But now researchers at Penn
State are checking other possible
environmental stresses that could be killing honeybees.
van Englesdorp says pinpointing the cause can be just
as difficult with bees as it is with humans:


“You can get a heart attack if you don’t eat well, if you
drink too much, if you smoke, you’re genetically disposed
to a heart attack. It could be one of those factors. It
could be a lot of those factors combining together.”


For this year, he says, the disorder means the number of honeybee colonies will be lower,
but he expects there to be enough to meet pollination
demands.


For The Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Related Links

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.

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: