— From the pages of FLL#35
Maybe you don’t know it, but it’s true. I also need bees. Nicolas Cage, though he protests, needs bees. Everybody needs bees. Plants depend on them for pollination, herbivores depend on plants, and so on up the food chain all the way to you, me, and Nicolas Cage. Break that one link, and the whole chain falls apart. Albert Einstein famously didn’t say that, “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have no more than four years to live,” but the importance of the honeybee cannot be overstated.
“Honeybees are a keystone species, an ecological linchpin,” says environmental scientist Adam Nelson. “They’re responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat.”
Although he’s only been keeping bees for two years, Nelson is passionate about them and has thoroughly immersed himself in the hobby. His apartment is stacked with beehive frames, his motorcycle is being retrofitted to transport colonies, and he’s even started a company, GeoBees, to develop a geo-spatial mapping software for honeybee research.
In September 2015, Nelson spoke at Harrisburg’s PechaKucha 20×20 (similar to TED Talks) to propose an urban beautification project: transforming one span of the broken Walnut Street Bridge (which collapsed in 1996) into a public apiary. “Having bees directly in the floodplain on an otherwise unused bridge would be perfect for helping to sustain a healthy ecosystem along the blueway that is the Susquehanna River,” he explains. The bees would benefit, too. “Urban bees are showing higher survival rates and higher honey productivity than rural bees.”
Show Me the Honey
Virtually everything that bees create has been repurposed by humans. Honey can be flavored, candied, fermented into mead, or simply used as a sweetener. Beeswax is great for candle making, cheese sealing, waterproofing, and all sorts of cosmetics. Apitoxin, or bee venom, has proven effective in reducing allergic reactions, and is being tested as an arthritic treatment.
“There’s so much you can do with a hive,” says Lori Stahl, a beekeeper of 15 years who is active in local and state beekeeping associations. Her online shop, BeeBee’s All Naturals, features exclusive lines of candy, candles, soaps, and skin care products, from moisturizer to lip balm. She’s also partnered with Lancaster Brewing Company and Thistle Finch Distillery to produce some very special honey candy that might leave you a little buzzed.
Stahl started out as a swarm removal specialist, working with construction and housing companies to extract bees from buildings and residences where they don’t “beelong.” Now, she retrieves those colonies and finds new homes for them. “Lately, I’ve been getting into the genetics of bees, of preserving certain traits,” she told me, as she struggled to remove the cover of an apiary. It was glued shut with wax and honey—the work of over-productive bees. She calls that breed the “Honey Monsters,” and aptly so. They don’t know when to quit… and that’s a good thing!
The Bee’s Needs
Sadly, this has been one of the worst seasons for honeybees in the United States. In Pennsylvania alone, beekeepers suffered a 60.9% rate of loss; Lori Stahl lost even more than that over the winter: 27 of her 30 colonies. Imagine those numbers on a human scale—we’d be talking about the apocalypse! It’s a very alarming trend.
You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the strange disappearance of worker bees from otherwise healthy colonies over the past ten years. Some speculate that this is the result of pesticides, mites, or viruses, but the scientific community has so far been unable to pinpoint a cause. CCD has ravaged honeybee populations around the world, so the bees need our help more than ever. That’s right, the bees need you.
Keith Jardine grew up in South Africa. He captured his first swarm in a cardboard box nearly 40 years ago and has kept bees ever since, in South Africa, in Europe, and now in Chester County. He believes that one of the biggest threats facing honeybees right now is the American lawn. “We’re creating a sterile environment,” says Jardine. “Things like clover in your lawn shouldn’t be regarded as weeds. And dandelions are highly nutritious—they’re needed by the pollinators.”
Bees need a habitat, and that’s something we can all contribute to. You don’t need to let your lawn become overgrown, but you can spare the clover or plant some wildflowers. Find out which flora are good for pollinators and make a space for them in your yard. Invest in a window box planter. Or even contact a local beekeeper and offer to host a beehive on your property—they’ll maintain it and you’ll reap a portion of the sweet, sweet rewards!