According to Becky Masterman, director of the Bee Squad Association Program at the University of Minnesota, there is both good and bad news when it comes to bees. “The good news is the media has done such a good job of letting the public know the bees are in trouble,” Becky says. The bad news — of course— is that the bees are in trouble.
The Bee Squad at the University of Minnesota is the outreach arm for the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, under the guidance of nationally known and respected Dr. Marla Spivak. During beekeeping time (spring, summer and fall) the bee squad starts early in the morning in the aviary with the bees. “It’s my job to make sure the bees are healthy,” says Becky who knows before the sun is up that she will be stung 10-15 times that day.
“I don’t wear gloves. I have to be careful with the bees and try hard not to kill them — I’m entrusted to help manage other people’s bees,” Becky explains, adding that when you kill a bee, she releases a pheromone that alerts the other bees and they start attacking. She relays that wearing protective gloves makes her more clumsy with the bees, and she would be more likely to kill them.
When students and others are in the apiary with Becky, they almost always ask her to point out the queen bee. “People are fascinated with the queens,” she says, “She has the ability to lay 1,500 eggs per day and she has a ton of power. Without her, the colony will die.” Sadly, along with the worker bees, the national health of queen bees is also suffering. According to Becky, queens are not living as long as they used to. “She used to live 5 years, then it was down to 2 years, and today we are losing 30 percent of our queens every summer,” she states sadly.
What Ails Our Bees?
There is a laundry list of what ails our bees: exposure to pesticide, herbicides, fungicides, parasites, viral and bacterial diseases and a serious lack of pollinator friendly foods. As Dr. Spivak states in her Ted Talk, “This small bee is holding up a large mirror — how much is it going to take to contaminate humans?” When I asked Becky which of these challenges keeps her up at night, she declared, “Varroa mites! They are public enemy number one when it comes to our honeybees.” Becky feels the commercial beekeepers have a better handle on treating varroa mites, and they are attempting to learn from them.
Becky explains how bees have elicited passion in various groups who would otherwise never have met: There’s a program where scientists and artists who love bees gather, work together, then perform on stage and recite poetry, sing and tell stories related to bees. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design has partnered with the University of Minnesota Bee Lab to display bee related art projects produced by these groups.
Working with bees can be a stress reducing hobby with far reaching mental health benefits. “Everyone who works with bees finds it really relaxing. The beauty of keeping bees is you can’t rush through the work. I can’t be in a hurry when I’m working with bees,” says Becky. She then shared details of a new program involving Minnesota Veterans who took beekeeping classes last winter in order to be ready to work in their own apiary near the Minneapolis airport this spring. These veterans get to learn something new, have their own source of natural honey, and develop one more way of dealing with stress and anxiety.
Becky shares her observations about the flexible work habits of bees. “In a colony, bees actually change jobs based on the need of the hive. If more foragers are needed, the younger bees may head out early to do the foraging. You have to respect that level of organization and communication.”
Bee Keeping: Not for Everyone
Beekeeping, experts tell us, is difficult, expensive and not for everyone. “I tell people who are interested in becoming beekeepers to put a lot of thought into it,” Becky cautions. “Go into it with your eyes wide open. Take a class. Spend time in our apiary. Spend an entire summer working with someone else’s bees and take your time deciding.”
Becky reminds us that every third bite we eat is thanks to the pollinating work of bees, and that bees reflect the health of our environment. When we help bees by taking good care of the environment, we help ourselves.
8 Ways to Help Bees
• This fall, leave dead wood, flowers, leaf litter, or plant stems for overwinter habitat.
• Next spring, plant a pollinator friendly garden with a variety of flowers of different colors, shapes and blossoming times. (www.beelab.umn.edu or www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation).
• Choose native plants. Avoid plants treated with systemic insecticides.
• Encourage your neighbors to create a pollinator friendly yard.
• Reduce or eliminate use of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.
• Band together with local churches, schools and businesses to make their grounds bee friendly.
• Create a rain garden, or put out shallow watering dishes.
•Teach the next generation about bees Take children outside and show them bees gathering pollen.
University of Minnesota Bee Lab Classes; research and mentoring for the public. www.beelab.umn.edu
Ted Talk by Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesot, The Bee Bummer. www.ted.com/talks/marla_ spivak_why/bees/are/disappearing
Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association Friendly group of 400+ beekeepers who have various levels of experience. www.mnbeekeepers.com
Bee Time by Mark Winston
Honey Bee Democracy by Thomas Seeley