Whatcom County Bees
For the past decade, US media has carried reports of declining honeybee populations and the impending doom it could mean for food production. I’d seen depressing stories about colony collapse disorder (CCD) where whole hives of bees inexplicably disappear, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus from the library. However, I wanted to know exactly was happening with our fuzzy little friends.
The book opened a window on a whole aspect of agriculture I had no idea existed. It also helped sort out facts from myths, and left me feeling more hopeful than I expected.
Popular opinion, for example, says that “wild” honeybees have gone extinct in North America, for reasons largely unknown. The reality is far more complicated. For starters, honeybees are not native to North America. Europeans brought domesticated bees to the east coast sometime around 1620, reaching the west coast in the mid-1800s, so arguably there never has been a wild species. Bees periodically swarm and leave their hives (most commonly because of overcrowding–some leave to form a new colony). If a beekeeper is present, they lure the bees into a new manmade hive, but sometimes a swarm finds a natural home, such as a hole in a tree, and then may be called “wild” because no beekeeper is actively caring for them. Genetically, though, they are still the same strains as domesticated bees.
That’s not to say honeybees are not distressed these days. All genetically related honeybees, whether wild or domestic, are vulnerable to the same diseases, parasites, and predators, and there are lots of them that have spread around the world. If so-called wild bees have died off and bees with keepers have not, it may be because their human caretakers are intervening to protect them, sometimes in ways that are sustainable and sometimes not.
For me, the most stunning revelation was how utterly dependent much of US farming is on mobile bee herds. As monoculture farms have evolved (farm areas where huge acreage is devoted to single crops), beekeeping has evolved, too. When thousands of acres are planted in a single crop, they blossom all at the same time. It takes a lot of bees to pollinate those flowers so they will produce fruit or vegetables. For example, did you know that hundred of thousands of hives are shipped from all over the country every year to central California for almond orchard pollination? Other crops get similar treatment. It’s a massive shipping operation made all the more remarkable because of the sensitivity of the bees in the hives being shipped.
Beekeepers are willing to move their fragile cargoes around because natural food supplies for honeybees have dwindled. Honeybees need a steady supply of summer pollen to be healthy. Wild meadows are a good source with mixed plants blooming at different times, maintaining a steady and varied supply of pollen. But satisfactory wild places have become rare. Pollution, development, and more have reduced available wildlands. Commercial monoculture makes moving bees to food economically viable, since growers will pay for pollination services. If bees stayed in one place, their numbers would be fewer because of lack of enough year-round pollen. The result of fewer bees would be a lot less food produced for humans.
Not all crops require bee pollination. Some plants are self-pollinating, and pollination by wind is sufficient for others. About 90% of flowering plants and about one third of human food crops, though, are heavily dependent on bees (and butterflies and moths) for their reproduction process.
Keeping honeybees alive and healthy is difficult even at best. They are subject to viruses, mites, predators, and unseasonable weather. Being highly social creatures, diseases and parasites spread quickly through bee populations. Humans have added destruction of habitat, pesticides, and herbicides to the list of fatal hazards for bees.
After reading the book, I was left wondering about the status of bees here in Whatcom County. I called local beekeeper, Rob Rienstra of Backyard Bees, to try to find out.
Rob sells his honey at the Bellingham Farmers Market. His business focus is honey production, and he does his own honey extraction (removing and purifying the honey from the waxy honeycomb). Most of his bees are in urban backyards around Bellingham, but he also provides pollination services for a local apple orchard and a raspberry farm.
Rob says he’s very selective about the kind of commercial crops he lets his bees pollinate. “Some pollen is not as good for bees,” he believes. Reasons range from chemicals used during crop production to the quality of nutrients available. “It’s like people combining rice and beans to get all their necessary amino acids,” he says. “Some pollens have better combinations of nutrients.”
Rob sends some of his strongest hives to California for the huge almond orchard pollination operation. Cold winter weather is the most difficult time of the year for bees. Rob has found that in California during almond season his bees get warmer spring weather and more bountiful pollen, and come back even stronger and healthier for summer honey production locally.
He says he hasn’t personally seen a colony collapse (CCD) event in this area, and he doesn’t think a Skagit beekeeper friend has seen any either. The greatest bee loss happens during winter when bees are dormant. Last summer was cool and wet–not good for honeybees–so most of Rob’s winter loss was due to nosema, a bee virus which thrives in cool damp years.
Overall, Rob says he doesn’t think Whatcom County farmers have problems getting enough bees for adequate pollination. However, that’s partly because many bees are shipped from other parts of the state (and beyond) for local raspberry production.
Bees typically range an average of about 2 miles from their hive to collect nectar and pollen, unless they find a steady supply closer to home. If you want to help support honeybee health, Rob recommends using “serious caution” before using pesticides or herbicides in your yard, especially those intended for ants or wasps. Many have unintended consequences for honeybees.
Also, late May and early June here in Whatcom is a time when bees sometimes starve. The weather begins to warm, hive metabolism is also warming up, but there’s not yet much blooming. Plantings of May-June blooming flowers and trees which are attractive and nutritious for bees can help them get through the season more easily. See this brochure for information about good plants to use in this area.
Finally, I asked Rob what he most would like people to understand about bees. He thought for a moment. “Honeybees are gentle,” he said. “Honeybees are really, really safe to be around unless you are known to be allergic. Unless you step on a bee or kick it’s hive, you’re very unlikely to be stung by a bee.”
To ensure the honey you bring home is high quality, Rob says, “Buying closer to home is a better bet.” I couldn’t agree more. The Los Angeles Times last November reported, “A torrent of illegal Chinese honey labeled in India [to skirt American trade restrictions] is slipping into the U.S. potentially laden with untraceable antibiotics and heavy metals.” Not on my family’s table, thank you!