Saving the honeybees, one backyard at a time

By - Sep 17th, 2010 04:00 am
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All photos by Nicole Braunsdorf.

In May of 2008 CBS News did a story entitled, “What’s Killing Our Honeybees?” offering a glimpse into a matter of global proportions. The crisis making the headlines was Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) a phenomenon that occurs when worker bees, the nectar-gathering pollinators of the apian community, begin to disappear…in droves.

According to local expert Charlie Koenen, honeybees — Wisconsin’s official state insect — are responsible for pollinating more than $15 billion worth of fruit and vegetables grown in the U.S. alone. Americans rely on pollinators, and honeybees primarily, for the pollination of 75 percent of the food they consume.

Large commercial crops of almonds, apples, pears, peaches, soybeans, cranberries and oranges depend entirely on pollination by honeybees, and these particular populations are declining rapidly. In Wisconsin, honeybees also pollinate alfalfa crops, a staple in the diet of our state’s dairy cows.

Charlie Koenen checks a beehive

The term Colony Collapse Disorder, also known as Honeybee Depopulation Syndrome, came into use beginning in 2006 when significant depopulation occurrences were being reported on a global scale. During the Spring of 2007 CCD hit beekeepers in over half the U.S. Now all but a handful of states are feeling the sting of this crisis — current reports bring the overall decline to close to 75 percent of the honeybee population since 1990.

Scientists have considered many theories for CCD. One points to the fact that pollinator bees who travel thousands of miles each year endure stress and disorientation, which in turn shortens their life spans. For example, one major U.S. beekeeper reports moving his hives from Idaho to California in January, then to apple orchards in Washington in March, to North Dakota two months later, and then back to Idaho by November.

Genetically modified crops have also added a new threat to apian health; some of the crops contain pesticide DNA and the nicotine carrier into which this pesticide has been spliced. After working these crops, pollinator honeybees reportedly become “wired” and disoriented, losing their direction and their ability to return to the hive. It’s also been posited that the ingestion of the nectar from GMO crops weakens the honeybees’ immune systems, making them susceptible to every disease known to their species.

Many of the “left-behinds in the hives [are] nearly dead from a variety of diseases…some had every known disease that affect bees at once,” said Koenen, adding that the forced migration of these commercial bees also exposes them to viruses and mites for which they have no built-in tolerance.

A Beepod

While scientists and agribusiness giants grapple with theories, people like Koenen have taken it upon themselves to focus on solutions. Charlie started Beepods, a Milwaukee company whose mission is to educate people in the hopes of bringing new beekeepers into the global effort to sustain the apian population.

“The biggest thing we want to get people to know is this bit about the difference between a wasp and a bee. Everybody says they got stung by a bee today. Ninety-nine percent of them were stung by a wasp,” he says, “If we can get the world to identify the difference between a bee and wasp that would be the biggest thing we could ever do. Then people would start to understand that honeybees are important and honeybees are safe.”

Honeybees are non-aggressive given their singular purpose – pollination. “Wasps,” Charlie adds, “do not pollinate; they hang out at your soda, they hang out at your steak, they hang out at your picnic because they are omnivores; they’ll eat anything. All they want to do is get you out of the way so they can drink your soda, and they have stingers that can sting multiple times. The reason a honeybee stings you is you are either posing a threat of grave danger to their hive or their queen.”

Koenen and his staff offer beehive inspection events (yes, bee veils are included and the bees truly are docile) and three courses which prepare aspiring beekeepers to begin their foray into the world of urban beekeeping.

Milwaukee recently joined the ranks of other metropolitan cities across the U.S., such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis and Chicago in passing an ordinance permitting beekeeping in the city. In no less than 390 cities worldwide, an urban beekeeper can hook up with a group who shares an apian passion.

Charlie Koenen and friends

In Chicago, honeybee colonies reside on the roof of some very prominent downtown real estate. Mayor Richard Daley himself introduced the idea and today over 6,000 non-aggressive European honeybees pollinate the rooftop garden over Chicago’s City Hall. The Windy City bees are also known to travel a few blocks east to Grant Park and to the tulips in the median strip of Michigan Avenue. Chicago’s Cultural Center sells the honey produced by these bees, and Mayor Daley regularly gives the honey as gifts to visiting dignitaries.

Two hives perch atop the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. General Director Alexander Neef stated this past May that “the planet is losing honeybees at an alarming rate…more than anything we wanted to take one small step toward helping the bee population recover its numbers.” Once that colony is fully established, it is estimated that it will have about 60,000 bees producing 50 to 60 pounds of honey annually.

And in May of last year, First Lady Michelle Obama incorporated honeybees into the White House Garden landscape.

Albert Einstein wrote that should the honeybee population die off completely, mankind would follow within four short years. People who have heard the clarion cry have responded and triggered a worldwide response, but the effort toward restoration has only just begun. Those who are interested in backyard beekeeping or who simply wish to learn more may contact Charlie Koenen via his website or visit the Urban Ecology Center to register for a class. The Milwaukee County UW-Extension and the Urban Apiculture Institute have  also started Wisconsin’s first Certified Beekeeper program.

Check with your local city or village hall to learn which municipalities are honeybee-friendly. “No-buzz zones” in Wisconsin currently include the cities of Greendale, Greenfield, Eau Claire, and Union Grove.

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