By Nancy McKibben
Photography by Catherine Murray and Jessica Opremcak
How can we live in a bee-friendly way? James Tew, an Ohio State University associate professor of apiculture, the coordinator of the OSU Wooster Bee Laboratory and a beekeeper himself since 1972, offers these suggestions.
- Be tolerant of bees. If you find some living in your yard, try to find a way to live with them. • Don’t spray more pesticides than necessary.
- Plant flowering plants and trees rather than just grass, so the bees have something to eat. Clover and dandelions, which have been nearly eradicated in city and suburb, were once the main summer diet of honeybees.
- Provide a home for leafcutter bees, which pollinate but do not produce honey and rarely sting. Make a nest box by drilling about 50 2- to 3-inch-deep holes in a hardwood block and hang it up in a tree or garden shed at the back of your property. Tew promises that the block will not attract termites or wasps.
- Consider keeping bees.
“Three-fifths of the people at beekeeping meetings now are brand new,” Tew says. He attributes this growth in beekeeping to the high awareness of the bees’ plight (see sidebar), and also the green and urban farm movements. Many cities and suburbs (including New York City and Columbus) permit residents to keep a limited number of hives. Dana Stahlman, a Master Beekeeper and the president of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association, encourages beekeeping wannabees to come to their meetings. “It’s too late in the season to start a hive this year,” he says, “but you can learn about it and meet other beekeepers.”
Since 1975, the U.S. bee population has dropped by approximately half, according to James Tew of the Ohio State University Wooster Honey Bee Lab. The problem was brought into sharp relief in 2006, when 600,000 of the 2.5 million bee colonies in the United States died from a malady labeled colony collapse disorder, or CCD, the mysterious abandonment of a hive by most of the bees. CCD is not a new problem, as similar phenomena have been described since the 1800s. Tew likens the disorder to a cold: “You know the symptoms, but you don’t really know exactly what caused it.” CCD is more likely to affect large commercial beekeepers with thousands of hives who use their bees primarily for pollination, often transporting them thousands of miles to pollinate crops. Tew lists factors that do or may affect bees adversely: viruses, pesticides, lack of genetic diversity (at least 1/3 of all U.S. bees are derived from the same 300–400 special breeder queen lines), varroa mites, pesticides and chemicals, air pollution and overuse of bees as pollinators. CCD may be a result of any one factor, or a variety of interrelated factors. “Today’s bees are not as vibrant and resilient as they once were,” says Tew, who points out that bees used to survive easily on their own, without human intervention. “Bees could have a hive behind your barn, and the hive lived for years, and you never had to do anything with them. Today, bees need us. They have become more like tomato plants, having to be replaced every year.”
Master Beekeeper Dana Stahlman is hoping to help make the Ohio bee population more robust by breeding queens that are resistant to the state’s cold winters. His are the brains behind the Ohio State University Queen Project, which he runs through the Ohio State Beekeepers Association and in conjunction with the OSU Bee Lab at Wooster. Isaac Barnes, who has about 120 hives, has not experienced CCD, and focuses his energies on varroa mites, the plague of beekeepers everywhere. Isaac recalls the effort to control them in the commercial hives where he worked in Missoula. “We were putting outright poison into the hives.” Isaac has a pesticide-free strategy: “After June 21, the old queens slow down and lay fewer eggs, but the mite population in the hive is building up. The best thing is to have a young queen split off. July is a big month—we start 50 to 60 new hives. The new queen lays a lot of eggs to get the population up, and this keeps the mite cycle down.” “That’s what’s working for us,” Isaac says diffidently. “We don’t have thousands of hives, so we can babysit the bees more.”
Resources for those interested in beekeeping:
Franklin County Zoning Resolution; Section 115.04 Regulation of Apiaries: franklincountyohio.gov/commissioners/edp/zoning/ZoningResolutionUpdated6.9.10.pdf