Features & Columns

Guild Save the Queen: Beekeepers Fight to Save Local Hives

Hobbyist beekeeping surges as scientists debate the mystery of disappearing bees.
HONEY HOARDER: Ian Coulson, co-founder of the Santa Cruz Bee Guild, with his bees, which he keeps at his home. Photo by Henry Housekeeper

Ian Coulson runs his bare fingers along the open gaps of the hive's frames. "Good beekeepers don't need gloves," he says. He pries one frame out of the hive and lifts it up to the light.

Coulson, the co-founder of the Santa Cruz Bee Guild, is showing me his beehives. There aren't as many as I'd expect. A third of his bees died last year, he tells me. Empty hive boxes lay in the tall grass around his hillside home high in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Not long ago, this would have alarmed local beekeepers—many on the coast rely on Coulson for advice when they suspect trouble at their own hives. But today, the news causes less of a stir. Beekeepers have been reporting alarming mass die-offs of their hives for more than a decade. In that time, according to some estimates, the U.S. has lost a third of its honeybees, and no one knows why.

Ken McKenzie, president of the Santa Clara Valley Bee Guild, says he lost 50 percent of his own bees this past year, which accounts for hundreds of thousands of bees spread across 26 hives set set up around Santa Clara County.

Local beekeepers, however, are undeterred. At the Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Valley bee guilds, swarms of beginning and veteran beekeepers fill the meetings, eager to share tips on how to support and care for their bees. Grassroots movements to save hives has provided a new hope. But even with the guilds' help, keeping a beehive healthy nowadays requires an exceptional amount of skill, and luck.

Mystery Solved?

No one can say for certain why bees are struggling. Bees face many stresses—disease, mites, poor nutrition, and insecticides—and the die-offs probably have no single culprit. But a general theme has emerged among the theories: bees and modern agriculture simply don't get along.

It's not easy to be an insect on today's farms. For instance, most conventional farmers protect their fields from pests with insecticides—chemicals that kill insects but not plants. Spray-on insecticides have a long history, but today many farmers prefer systemic insecticides, which plants absorb through their roots or seeds.

In many ways, systemic pesticides trump the spray-on ones, at least from an agricultural perspective. Most notably, farmers are able to apply less of them to their fields, since the chemical compounds stay within the plants' tissues. And they can't blow away, a major benefit for neighborhoods that border farms. Systemic pesticides should also spare pest-fighting bugs, for example, since these helpful critters don't eat farmers' fruits.

But with their benefits, systemic pesticides also bring new challenges. With conventional insecticides, beekeepers kept their hives away when farmers sprayed. Now, compounds stick around in plants' tissues—including in their pollen. And when scientists look in some beehives, they find traces of pesticides.

No one is certain how systemic pesticides affect bees. But many beekeepers connect them to the sudden and widespread bee die-offs they began finding a decade ago.

Complicating the problem is the fact that not all regulators agree on how to handle the compounds. In December of last year, for example, Canada banned the use of neonicotinoids, the systemic insecticide class most often blamed for the bee die-offs. In the U.S., though, the neonicotinoid review is ongoing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in January that one subset of neonicotinoids may harm bees, and they plan to assess others in the near future. Many beekeepers wonder why progress is so slow.

But the case against neonicotinoids may be gaining momentum. Last fall, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher Jonathan Lundgren filed a whistleblower suit in which he alleged that the agency had blocked his research on the harmful effects of neonicotinoids—a worrisome claim, if true.

Jeffrey Aldrich, a research entomologist for more than 30 years at the USDA, and now a consultant based in Santa Cruz, thinks the argument against neonicotinoids has merit. "Bees already face stresses from commercial farming," Aldrich says. "Adding neonicotinoids could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

Still, Coulson doesn't blame modern agriculture for the bees' plight. "None of this is the farmer's or the beekeeper's fault," he says. "It's just that it's hard to make a living farming today."

Al Henninger, one of the most knowledgeable beekeepers in the Bay Area after running his honey bee business, Henninger Hill Apiary, for the better part of five decades in the east foothills of San Jose, imparts some blame on the California Department of Transportation, which sprays herbicides on the side of highways to kill weeds.

"Sometimes those herbicides mixed together can be more deadly than pesticides," he says.

TERMINATOR: The Varroa destructor poses one of the biggest threats to bee survivial. One beekeeper compared it to 'a vampire with AIDS.'

Why Bees Matter

Plants flower for bees, not humans. Bees see colors invisible to humans, such as ultraviolet—possible, in part, because they have five eyes. So flowers use bright pigments, particularly yellow and blue, to catch bees' attention. To reward visiting bees, flowers ooze nectar, a sugary bee food and the key ingredient of honey.

"When I go through the pollen (collected by bees) and I see purple, yellow, red and blue, I know they have a diverse diet," McKenzie says.

Flowers, like many organisms, have good reason to be sweet. Plants mate by sharing pollen, which sticks to the legs and bellies of bees that gather nectar. When bees depart for their next flower, the pollen tags along. And seeds too, like pollen, must be spread. So plants embed their seeds in fruit—and humans, for example, carry the fruit away.

Flowers are savvy at attracting pollinator insects or animals to help them reproduce. But what happens when insects, like bees, aren't there? If flowers fail to mate, they produce no seeds. And without seeds, plants have little reason to fruit.

Farmers, then, must make sure their crops have plenty of opportunity to mingle. When bees spread pollen, they help orchards and fields yield fruit. At first glance, convincing bees to pollinate farms might seem easy—bees thrive near flowering fields. But a farm is only a bounty when in bloom. When a farm grows one crop, as many do today, the farm's flowers all bloom at the same time. Bees may feast, briefly. But soon, the blooming crop turns to fruit, and for bees, the party ends. Before the next year's flowers open, the bees' honeycomb stores will run dry.

Farmers solved this problem many years ago. Rather than entice bees to stay, they now hire commercial beekeepers to truck in bees. Moving hives may be costly for farmers and stressful for bees, but mobile colonies make flowers fruit. And today, these bees-on-wheels visits help produce a third of the food we eat.

To the Rescue

Farms can't survive without bees, but bees don't need farms. And the new wave of beekeepers at local guilds often care little about farming—they just want to give their bees a fighting chance.

But beware, keeping a colony alive in the backyard is anything but easy. Bees that live miles from conventional farms, for example, still have plenty to worry about. Over the last few years, California's long drought stifled many of the flowers that Bay Area bees visit. Even in Santa Clara Valley, one of the most diverse and flourishing ecosystems in the state, some hives struggled to find food and water.

Bees also suffer from their own pests. Within many hives, the tiny varroa mite—also ominously known as the Varroa destructor—burrows into apiaries, or birthing chambers. "They literally suck the life out of bees," says Aldrich.

"They're like a vampire with AIDS," McKenzie notes. "We get malaria, typhoid and other diseases from mosquito bites; bees are getting viral and bacterial diseases from these piercing bites from varroa."

Many beekeepers intend to raise colonies without chemicals, but end up forced to treat—or else lose—their bees.

And new pests like the varroa or tracheal mites pop up suddenly. "Pests have always occurred from time to time," Coulson says, "But nowadays they spread more quickly."

Commercial beekeepers cart their hives from coast to coast to follow the blooms of major crops such as almonds, cranberries, or pears. Meanwhile, pests tag along.

"It didn't take long before varroa was attacking hives on both coasts, and everywhere in between," Coulson says. "So many hives were dying, the mites almost ran out of places to go."

Aldrich says bees will face a continued struggle "weathering the pests until scientists find better solutions."

Coulson agrees that that the mite problem isn't going away. "But bees will become tougher, and more hygienic," he says. "And the mites will learn to be gentler."

In other words, honeybees are resilient in the long run—they just need time to adapt.

While bees learn to live with the latest pest or disease, hobbyist beekeepers need some coaching in order to keep their colonies humming. Many seek advice from more experienced beekeepers through the Santa Cruz Bee Guild, or the Santa Clara Valley Bee Guild, which had more than 100 attendees at its monthly meeting (first Monday every month) this past week at Dwell Christian Church in San Jose. One of only two bee guilds in the county—the other is in GIlroy—the Santa Clara Valley guild has roughly 300 members, McKenzie says, and the draw isn't solely expertise.

"We thought everyone came out for the speakers," he says, "but really they're here to hobnob with their friends."

Josh Koehn contributed to this report.