Backyard Beekeepers Vanguards in the Battle of the Buzz | Robert O’Sullivan

The dim glow of the streetlights curl around the Norfield Congregational Church in Weston, Connecticut as dusk settles over the pickup trucks, Prii, minivans, and Subarus crowded into the parking lot. People cram into rooms in the Christian Education Building for the monthly meeting of the Backyard Beekeepers Association (BYBA). Late October marks the end of the season, and beekeepers begin to prepare their colonies as they overwinter, or cluster within the hive to maintain warmth in order to survive the winter. In the meeting room, a question and answer panel for beginning beekeepers begins with one board member—a man in a green hunting cap, red and tan plaid button up, white beard, and glasses, displaying his Langstroth hive adorned in its winter insulation. Brenna Traver, a bee researcher at Virginia Tech, and the night’s keynote speaker, joins the crowd with Serge Boyce, the co-vice president of the BYBA. They struggle to find extra chairs in the packed room.

Honeybees pollinate accidentally as they forage for food. Landing on a flower, they gather pollen and nectar to return to the hive where other workers can store and convert it into honey.

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The pollen sticks to the bee’s body from the anther, which contains gametes, or the flower’s male reproductive cells. These are then deposited on the stigma, or female organ, of another flower as the bee travels. This process is vital to the commercial cultivation of about one third of all crops in the United States. Blueberries and cherries depend 90 percent on the honeybee for pollination. Apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, courgettes’, peas, beans, and many other fruits, and vegetables depend on the honeybee for pollination; almonds depend 100 percent at flowering time on the honeybee. Agriculture relies heavily on the humble honeybee to do a tedious job.

The man in the hunting cap sits on a fold up table beside a section of his insulated hive, and takes questions from the BYBA members. Thirty people are packed into the small room, some standing shoulder to shoulder, others standing outside the door, and in the corners and spaces not occupied by chairs. He details the proper position for sackcloth barriers to guard against wind and snow while people take notes.

Winter presents a dangerous time for honeybees, and a trying time for their keepers. An old adage among beekeepers encourages them to, “take your losses in the fall,” but with summer die-offs on the rise, contemporary beekeepers take their losses all year round. Last winter, about 28 percent of colonies collapsed. The acceptable overwinter loss remains at 16.9 percent. For the first time, summer die-offs equaled the winter die-offs, a truly startling phenomenon within the community. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, “this high rate of loss is close to the highest annual loss rate over the six years we have collected annual colony loss numbers.” Bee populations across the United States, menaced by disease, pesticides, and parasites, prove expensive and increasingly difficult for beekeepers to maintain—but they continue in spite of the hardships.

A middle aged man in the audience begins to describe some strange symptoms he noticed in one of his colonies. Hat man quickly responds, “Have you ever done a mite count?”

“No, what’s that?” asks the older audience member.

Hat man instructs him to check the screen at the bottom of the hive for mites that may have dropped off the drones or workers, and collected there. This should be done regularly to monitor the health of a hive. People take notes. A rookie question, but it demonstrates the benefits of being a beekeeper that belongs to a community. For someone just starting, the support and collective knowledge of a community like the BYBA means the difference between success and frustration.

The humble honeybee (like a lone ant) may seem insignificant, but the people who engage in beekeeping as a hobby know better. Leslie Huston, a past president of the BYBA, started as a gardener, but, “found a different way of experience through bees.” Her garden flourished, and became more lively, but her new beekeeping hobby also led to the opening of her store in Newtown, Connecticut: Bee Commerce, “superior supplies, and personalized advice for the backyard beekeeper.”

For someone just starting, the support and collective knowledge of a community like the BYBA means the difference between success and frustration.

People shuffled from the Christian Education Building over to a much more spacious building next door, the Parish Hall. More keepers arrive for the main presentation of the meeting. Over a hundred people gather around the rows of chairs, the coffee and tea table, and the raffle table to talk bees. Bobbie Meyzen, president of the BYBA, walks onto the main stage wearing thick rim black glasses, and a gray tasseled shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Meyzen begins the meeting officially by introducing the guest speaker, Professor Brenna Traver. The focus of the night: honeybee pathogens, specifically Nosema ceranae, a microsporidian that infects most US colonies.

“How many people have heard of Nosema ceranae?” Half of the large conference room, at least fifty people, raise their hands. Nosema ceranae dates back to at least 1975—but researchers officially discovered the parasite in 2006, during the great honeybee rapture, and this new strain of Nosema seemed a likely culprit for the dreaded colony collapse disorder. “Look for extreme fecal streaking, or bee shit on the inside of hives. I find that not everyone knows what fecal streaking means—but everybody knows shit,” Traver jokes as she goes through a list of symptoms to look out for. Nosema ceranae, difficult to detect unlike Varroa mites, can only be seen and distinguished from Nosema Apis by a high-end electron microscope.

The honeybee rapture left no bodies in its wake, like colony collapse disorder, which reduced bee populations by almost half. In 2006 millions of bees in the United States vanished. The global siren sounded, and many feared the disappearance of the honeybee signaled the collapse of the biosphere—the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Some suggest the hype is unfounded, and does not signal extinction. The primary domesticated commercial pollinator could not go extinct; honeybee colonies, divided by beekeepers, recover losses annually—but the restoration of bee communities proves harder and more expensive for beekeepers to orchestrate amidst climbing winter and summer die-offs. Beekeepers remain vigilant in fortifying populations—and as the plight of the bees raises more public concern and awareness, more people have joined the backyard beekeeping community.

According to Traver, and other researchers, the domesticated honeybee is not threatened by extinction. Colonies collapse and rebound throughout the centuries. In 1910 a similar circumstance occurred as bees began disappearing. Opportunistic fungi, in combination with other pathogens, caused bees to fly from the hive, and die before returning. Dubbed the fall dwindle, or disappearing disease, it occurred in 1869 as well. Bee populations have collapsed before, and due to the efforts of commercial and backyard beekeepers, populations rebounded. Colony collapse disorder does not represent the breaking of the seventh seal, or the sounding of the seventh trumpet; however, the mysterious meshing of multiple interacting causes of death, like neonicotinoids, parasites, disease, habitat loss, and monocultures, significantly complicate the keeping of bees, and make the endeavor more expensive. Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, is not in danger of extinction. In the end, domesticated pollinators prevail, but noncommercial pollinators, native to the United States, need our help.

The honeybee rapture left no bodies in its wake, like colony collapse disorder, which reduced bee populations by almost half.

Indigenous bee populations across the US have reached a crisis point. The US Fish and Wildlife service proposed the rusty patched bumblebee, once a ubiquitous pollinator in the northeast, for the endangered species list—the first such proposal in the continental United States. Longevity is not guaranteed for the rusty patched, and indeed only protections provided by endangered status may save it from extinction. A third of all US crops are pollinated by forty-seven varieties of bumblebees alone, a quarter of which are at risk of extinction.

In Hawaii, seven species of yellow-faced bees (the island’s only natural pollinators) were granted endangered species status. The web of interacting causes of death ensnares native and wild bees as well; changing farming practices—monocultures, the use of pesticides, diseases, and flowerless landscapes, cripple bee populations. While honeybee populations can be saved for now, wild bees may be gone before we even begin to formulate solutions on a large enough scale.

Anyone with a patch of grass can pitch in to save the bees. Plant a garden of bee friendly flowers, and do not, absolutely do not, use any pesticides on the plants. This step alone will help bees regain food sources among growing food deserts. Start a colony of your own. Not only does it benefit gardens, but it benefits nearby farms, meadows, and our infrastructure of food production as well. In the meantime, we rely on good beekeepers to keep honeybee populations thriving despite the constant threat of multiple causes of death. Good beekeepers can keep honeybees pollinating, but they must also advocate to raise community awareness about the threat native bee species are under. The simple act of planting a bee friendly garden can help them fight back against pending extinction. In Connecticut, backyard beekeeping culture continues to grow as more people become aware of this invigorating hobby, and the tremendous environmental benefits.

I stood by the stage with Traver and Serge Boyce as the crowd of BYBA members grabbed the last pastries, cups of tea, and coffee for the drive home. I looked around as the room emptied. All these people: Meyzen, Huston, Boyce, Traver, the hat guy, and a hundred others, all united by their love of bees—all help each other create a community of beekeepers that encourages conservation efforts.

In the spring, the honey season will resume as always. Commercial beekeepers will begin shipping their hives to California to pollinate almonds, and back again for cranberries, various other fruits, and vegetables that depend on their skills. The backyard beekeepers, members of associations like the BYBA, will watch their gardens explode in vibrancy, and their honey stores pile up as the little fuzzy pollinators do what they do best—sustain life.

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