What’s that buzz? City slickers doing their bit to save the bees

What’s that buzz? City slickers doing their bit to save the bees

Oregon bee colonies are in decline, but not as much as elsewhere

By Hailey Hawkins
Pamplin Media Group, Aug 18, 2011

 Oregon beekeeper

Christopher Onstott / Pamplin Media Group

Tim Wessels tends to his “pet” honeybees in the backyard of his Northeast Portland home. Urban beekeeping is on the rise as the bee population shrinks.Not many people can claim half a million pets in their backyard.

But six beehives separate Portland’s Tim Wessels from your average city-dweller. Wessels is in his first year of beekeeping, but having bees has been a lifelong goal, ever since he got a case of bee envy as a child peering over at a neighbor’s hive.

What began as a curious interest evolved into a life-changing passion, giving Wessels a way to express gratitude to a planet that he feels gives him so much.

“It’s my way of giving back to the environment,” he says.

Wessels, a vegetarian, maintains an organic garden surrounding his house in Northeast Portland, and he says the bees have become just another part of his garden sanctuary. His hives, which he estimates contain half a million honeybees, are decoratively hand-painted. One is affectionately christened “Jujubee,” his nickname for his wife.

Wessels says he thinks of his bees much like pets, and tries to treat them gently and with respect. He moves slowly while around them, and says when handling his bees, he likes to imagine that he is doing tai chi.

While most beekeepers use smoke on their hives to calm bees and prevent stings, Wessels chooses not to. “You wouldn’t blow smoke in your dog’s face,” he says. His approach seems successful, as his bees have only stung him once.

“It was my own fault,” Wessels recalls. “I stuck my face into their hive at night.”

On warm summer days, he sits quietly near his hives, watching the bees on their journeys to and from their home. When a tired or curious bee lands on him, he keeps still, mesmerized until she continues on her way.

Backyard beekeepers like Wessels are becoming more common, says Maggie Crews of Ruhl Bee Supply in Gladstone.

“Recently, people have been realizing that people can keep bees in urban areas – on top of apartment complexes, in back yards. It’s a common misconception that you need a lot of space for bees,” Crews says.

Many people keep bees not just for the honey, but out of concern for their shrinking population, says Crews, a recent Lewis & Clark College graduate.

“It’s a way to improve the local ecosystem, because bees are not doing well naturally,” she says.

Wessels recognizes his bees make his and his neighbors’ fruits and vegetables more productive. But keeping bees is about more than having richer crops, he says; it’s about addressing a global decline in bee populations and trying to rebuild the struggling colonies.

“It’s not about the beekeeper,” he says. “It’s about the bees.”

Stinging decline

The U.S. bee population is drastically falling due to what scientists call “colony collapse disorder.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture, bee colonies declined by 34 percent in 2010, after a 29 percent decline in 2009. The plunge in pollinators could spell trouble as the world population increases, and so does the need for food.

“If they don’t survive, we may not survive,” Wessels says.

Ramesh Sagili, assistant horticulture professor at Oregon State University, says bees are the top pollinators for more than 90 different major crops collectively worth billions of dollars a year.

Agriculture is one of Oregon’s largest export sectors. Local berries, cherries and apples, among other crops, depend on bees.

In Oregon, the bee population fell an estimated 25 percent last year, somewhat better than the national average. Oregon’s bees may be faring better because of the abundance of foraging resources, Sagili says, particularly in the Willamette Valley, and perhaps because of the healthy practices of Oregon beekeepers. However,“25 percent is still not a good number,” he says.

Scientists bee-deviled

While no one source has been pinpointed as the cause of the bee population collapse, it’s speculated that many stress factors contribute, including parasitic mites, fungus, disease, starvation and lasting effects from pesticides and chemicals.

Wessels speculates that the stresses of hazardous chemicals are mostly to blame, and he chooses not to use any chemicals on his bees or his garden.

“Sprays and pesticides affect farther than just the plant,” he says. “Bees pick it up, then feed it to their babies.”

Even antibiotics, which are intended to help keep bee populations healthy, can have long-term detrimental effects such as weakening their immune systems over time, Wessels says.

As bacteria find new ways to fight the antibiotics, the bacteria grow stronger, but bees don’t develop immunity to the bacteria. In order to keep the bees healthy, beekeepers are required to use stronger and stronger antibodies to find new ways to fight the bacteria, using what Wessels calls the “chemical-of-the-month” method.

Bees’ weakened ability to fend off bacteria is one factor reducing the population, Sagili says.

“Genetic diversity in bees has narrowed down,” Sagili says. “It’s compromising the immune systems of the bees.”

Wessels avoids using antibiotics on his bees, and instead is trying to focus on a long-term way to fight the collapse by letting the bees find natural ways to combat the problems.

Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, a Utah State University-based research organization, published a 2005 study showing how bees can be bred, without chemicals, to have traits that help them fight off parasitic mites. One such trait was a hygienic behavior that gave bees the ability to detect and remove diseased or parasitized brood from the nest, thereby preventing the infection from spreading. The breed also showed improved resistance to fungal and bacterial infections.

Whether bees will find their own way to overcome the collapse remains to be seen, but Crews says it’s important to remember that people, whether in rural or urban environments, can do their part to help.

“Bees can really coexist with people in a city,” she says. In fact, city bees do more than coexist; they thrive.

Crews says bees kept in cities tend to be more productive than bees kept in rural environments. This could be because cities offer a large variety of plant diversity, including backyard gardens, window boxes, planters and flowerpots, whereas in rural areas bees may only have one source or bloom a year.

To keep bees inside Portland city limits, no permits are required for fewer than five hives; however, written consent is required from neighbors living within 150 feet of a hive.

Wessels says his neighbors have been very supportive of his beekeeping, despite one of them having an allergy to bee stings.

His habit of sharing honey with the neighbors probably helped sweeten the deal.

 

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Howard County Beekeepers Association Inc.

(A 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization)

Our purpose is to promote honey beekeeping in Howard County, Md by providing a forum in which current honey beekeepers may become more knowledgeable of best practices and the public can become more, and accurately, informed on the benefits of honey bees.