Last night at my Rotary club meeting we heard from a fellow club member, who talked about his beekeeping hobby. This is a fascinating occupation and one with a lot of conservation value, so I thought I would blog a bit about it today.
Egyptians may have been the first people to raise their own domesticated bees. Jars of honey were found within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and as stories would have it, the honey was still edible. According to my Rotarian friend, as long as no water gets into the honey, it can stay edible. If water gets in the honey ferments… although to me that sounds like a good problem to have. Mead anyone?!
Anyway, many cultures over the years domesticated bees and created different hive structures. Yet it wasn’t until the 18th century and the creation of the moveable comb hive that made apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) more sustainable. Why is that, you ask? Well the original forms of bee hives had to be destroyed in order to get at the honey, killing the bees in the process. Now you can easily open up the different combs of the hive, taking the honey you want and leaving the rest intact. In fact, I learned last night that there is a queen bee excluder, a metal grate that keeps the queen bee from laying eggs in most of the hive. This keeps the edible honey bee brood-free yet allows her to lay enough eggs in a portion of the hive. I guess I never thought that deeply about honey before, but know I am glad to know about the excluder!
Why is beekeeping important for conservation? There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees out there, but they’re not doing so well. With the way we tend to grow crops in the U.S. and elsewhere – a monoculture of genetically-engineered corn or soy, with lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for example – native bees can’t find enough pollen to bring back to their hives to make honey. No honey, no food for any of the bees, the hive dies. We have also paved and built over a lot of prime bee food habitat – meadows and other grasslands – further reducing their pollen supply.
Colony collapse disorder is a major concern for bee colonies. It was first documented in 2006, according to the USDA, and showed up to 90 percent mortality among affected hives. The population of managed honey bees in the U.S. has declined from five million in the 1940s to less than 2.5 million today. What causes colony collapse disorder? While no one has an exact answer, scientists believe that it is a combination of Varroa mites, fungi and viruses, pesticides, lack of food and other stressors. It may be the perfect storm of problems for honeybees worldwide. And since honeybees and their pollination skills contribute $15 million annually towards the economy, losing the bees will harm us in our stomachs and pocketbooks. Like almonds? Then you should really be concerned… all almonds must be pollinated by bees. No bees, no almonds!
Beekeeping is a challenging hobby, but also very rewarding. Not only do you get tasty honey, but you can help support populations of healthy honeybees for the future. Don’t have the room or desire to have a hive or two of your own? Not to worry… you too can assist native bees by planting native, flowering plants like bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrods and milkweeds. To learn how to plant a pollinator garden (that will attract butterflies as well as beneficial bees) go to http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/topics/beegarden.
Bees are fascinating insects. From the queen to her female worker bees to the male drones, the hierarchy of the hive and the important tasks each bee is born knowing how to do will astound you. I encourage you to learn more about both native and imported bees so that the next time you see one you won’t be so quick to squash it. Instead admire it from a distant and thank it for the great job is does pollinating our flowers and crops. Without that little bee, your dinner wouldn’t be quiet as diverse and tasty.