Back in the fall of 2011, I wrote a story for a science journalism class on urban beekeeping in Madison. So, “five years ago” reads “eight and a half years ago” already. I never tried to publish it anywhere then, but just two weeks ago I was reminded of this piece when I came across a Slate article about a first time beekeeper and how he struggled to keep his bees alive. There were some numbers and statistics in the piece as well, like the fact that just three weeks ago “The New York Times and others reported that colony die-offs spiked again during the just-completed season, with 42.1 percent losses nationwide. That makes it among the worst years on record. Commercial beekeepers, the migratory insect wranglers whose flocks are essential to pollinating some of the nation’s most valuable crops, were hit especially hard.”
In my research into urban bee farming in Madison, I began thinking that commercial bees are abused. Many people laugh at me when I say that, but the Slate article mentioned above gives a pretty good picture as to why one could come to think that. Commercial bees are hauled across the country to pollinate fields and fields of any one crop at a time. Then they’re sent to another place to do it all over again. Can you image eating the same thing over and over again for two weeks straight and then traveling for days to feed on another food for weeks? Not to imagine eating food littered with chemicals. It’s no wonder the bees are struggling to survive. And with their numbers decreasing, so too does our food production. This story, “Urban Buzz,” doesn’t go into detail about the dangers the honeybees and our world faces, but the threat is real and one everyone should take seriously. A really interesting documentary–if you’re interested in the plight of the honeybee–is The Vanishing of the Bees. This one is already getting old, but the information is just as prevalent now as it was in 2009. A more recent one from 2012 is next in my documentary queue: More Than Honey. I may have teared up watching the trailer.
I’ve been thinking of keeping bees for several years and perhaps when I get a house, I’ll do it. After talking to beekeepers and scientists in Madison, urban bees seem to have a pretty good life, and it can’t hurt the human population, either.
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Five years ago, Jeanne Hansen’s husband ate seven five-pound jars of honey in a single summer. Surprised at her husband’s love for honey, Hansen decided to look into keeping honeybees at the suggestion of a friend. “I had never even considered [beekeeping] before that,” Hansen says. “I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, why don’t I?’ That much honey is expensive in the store. I could spend the same amount of money and get the same amount of honey, probably, and have more fun doing it.” Hansen then spent that winter reading books and articles online about beekeeping, what would become Hansen’s new hobby.
Now more than a hobby, Hansen’s beekeeping has become a window into understanding one of the most important insects in the world and in our cities. For Hansen and other urban beekeepers, it has become a love and an interest they all share. More than 50 people are members of the Dane County Beekeepers Association (DCBA), which began [in 2008]. They meet once a month to talk about bees and discuss more ways to promote beekeeping in Dane County. Even more people participate almost daily in the Madbees Google group via email. Here urban beekeepers compare notes on the latest wintering techniques and hive contraptions.
Urban beekeeping is slowly becoming more popular in Madison as more residents decide to keep bees in their backyard, whether it is to satisfy a honey-hungry spouse or to explore a newfound fascination. The bees buzzing within the city limits aid and are aided by the urban landscape of our parks, gardens and yards.
With a wide variety of flowering plants available to bees in cities, urban bees are generally healthier than commercial bees that pollinate vast fields of monoculture crops. “The poor commercial bees, they get put in the middle of 120 acres of canola plants, and that’s all they’ve got,” Hansen says. “Bees need pollen from lots of different flowers because no one pollen is a complete protein source. And so the poor bees—they’re like in the middle of the desert, but in the city there’s lots of stuff.”
Honeybees need pollen and nectar—and plenty of it—to survive, which is something that an urban setting like Madison provides. “Just like a human diet, a more diverse diet means a healthier bee, so you want multiple types of flowers blooming at any given time,” explains Hannah Gaines, a graduate student at UW-Madison. Gaines has been researching bumblebees specifically, and their impact on Wisconsin’s cranberry crops. But all bees are similar, and a variety of floral resources is crucial to keeping any type of bee healthy.
In the city, honeybees can thrive off flower gardens, vegetable gardens or any type of flowering plant. Fruiting plants, however, are the most beneficial for the bees, which in turn is helpful for humans, too. The blossoms on fruiting plants, like tomatoes, are organized so that the pollen is deep in the flower, according to Johanne Burnet, an entomologist at UW-Madison. Plants like these cannot rely on wind pollination, and humans often do not take the time to pollinate their own fruits and vegetables. But honeybees can, and will, take care of that job.
This job is one of the most important within the agricultural industry. In 2007, the United States Congressional Report stated that “honey bees as commercial pollinators in the United States is estimated at about $15 billion annually.”
Bee populations, no matter where they are kept, are crucial to the food we eat. Gaines has given several seminars and has worked with student groups to help educate people about the importance of bees, whether they are raised to pollinate agricultural fields or are kept in the yards of avid urban beekeepers.
One member of the DCBA kept a beehive in his back yard. According to Hansen, the member’s neighbor had a plum tree in his yard that had beautiful blossoms every year but never produced plums until the honeybees arrived. They pollinated the tree as they collected the nectar to produce their own food source: honey. Hansen recalls a similar experience with her own raspberry bushes. “When I got bees,” she says, “my raspberry crop doubled the first year I had bees. There are bumble bees that pollinate, other insects that pollinate, but honeybees do the best job.”
“An easy way to understand how important bees are, is to remember that one in every three bites of food you take is dependent on bees,” Gaines says. This relationship could be direct like in eating a blueberry or cranberry that came from a plant that required bee pollination, or it could be indirect. “In order to get a hamburger, you need a cow. In order to get a cow, you need food for the cow. Cows eat alfalfa. In order to plant an alfalfa field, you need alfalfa seed. In order to get that seed, you need a bee to pollinate that flower. So without bees, you also wouldn’t have your hamburgers or your ice cream or your coffee. Bees are really important.”
Members of the DCBA also understand the importance of bees in general. Oliphant and Hansen both agree that there is a lot of science to understand about bees in order to keep them, and many of the members work to educate other beekeepers and people of all ages about bees and their role in our world. Paul Oliphant has kept bees since the mid-1990s and is studying bee genetics that could make it easier for the small-scale beekeepers of Dane County to start keeping bees. “I’m trying to help people keep a bee that will survive and be easier to keep around this area,” Oliphant explains. He tries to breed as many bees as he can that carry the “gentle bee” gene.
Researching specific genes also benefits the bees and their complex social structure. “The most interesting thing about bees is that they’re just fascinating organisms,” Oliphant says. Everything works together perfectly, and each bee has its own unique role to help keep the hive alive and healthy. He has learned a lot from his bees, but each hive is different and has different needs he must understand. “Bees don’t talk,” Oliphant reflects. “One of the biggest challenges is to listen and to understand what the bees need.” Sometimes beekeepers must help the bees survive, and Oliphant’s genetic research may make that easier to do.
The Varroa mite, a parasite that plagues hives more often than beekeepers would like to think about, is one of the main destroyers of bee hives. Oliphant more recently has been looking into a gene that makes a bee a better housekeeper. Bees with this certain gene are more able to smell the presence of the deadly and infectious Varroa and get rid of it before the mites can do too much damage. Mites are a constant threat, even in urban bees. However, if the mites don’t kill the bees, winter most likely will.
Keeping bees alive through a Wisconsin winter is one of the biggest challenges an urban beekeeper, or any beekeeper for that matter, faces. “Some bees are always going to live, and some bees are always going to die,” Hansen admits. There are so many different things to try each year, but according to Hansen, “Even the beekeepers who have been keeping bees for 25 years try something different every year.”
Hansen has lost her hives every winter since she began keeping bees. She says her bees this year are healthy, but she’s nervous that they won’t have enough honey for the winter months. Honeybees are one of the only animals that overproduce the food they make, and when they do, beekeepers are able to harvest the honey, Hansen says. Honeybees will use 30-60 pounds of honey throughout the winter, so beekeepers need to ensure that that amount stays in the hive. This winter, Hansen is hoping for the best for her bees she keeps in her backyard and those she keeps elsewhere in and around Madison.
In the basement of her home, Hansen has constructed a homemade observation hive. Two panels of glass encase five wooden frames filled with honeycomb, some of it plastered thick with honey. A hand-sewn wire tube allows the bees to get from the hive to outside and back. Hansen resorted to sewing the tubing shut after her first contraption allowed some sneaky bees to escape into the basement.
It is clear Hansen loves her bees as she watches their small bodies running around systematically on the glass. “I’d keep the observation hive in my living room if my family would let me,” she says. For now, it will have to stay in the basement where she can keep an eye on them, study them, and learn more about how to help the bees in her other hives as they work to survive through the winter months.
Jeanne Hansen loves everything about keeping bees: the honey, the bees themselves, the joy of having a group of interested beekeepers to discuss their hobby, and even building and inventing new equipment. “It’s just rewarding all around, but when the bees die I get grumpy. When they live I’m happy.”