Forty minutes from downtown Charleston, Cheri Ward’s Blue Pearl Farms seems worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Situated on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest, her farm is a haven for blue crabs, blueberries, and most notably, bees. After over ten years as a beekeeper, Cheri has accumulated 50 hives of healthy bees – an increasingly difficult feat in a world where pollinator health is on the decline.
“You don’t want to say they’re happy bees, but they’re happy bees,” she said with a smile. Cheri’s farm is a rare example of a largely self-sustaining ecosystem. She and her partner, Richard, refrain from chemical and pesticide use and prefer holistic care for their farm. For example, in order to protect their blueberries from hungry birds, they attracted Martins, a naturally defensive bird, by installing dried gourds. In exchange for a few berries, the Martins will keep other birds away.
The natural care with which Cheri and Richard maintain their berries extends to the way they care for the bees. Because of the farm’s isolation, the bees are not exposed to common pesticides and chemicals found in municipal spraying or homeowner gardens. In addition, Cheri and Richard intensively manage their bees by checking their hives once per week in order to foresee any potential issues and provide preventative care.
“Being active stewards of the bees is part of maintaining the population and keeping them healthy,” Cheri said. “Our focus is on making sure anywhere we put our bees is bee friendly.”
Cheri and Richard take such great lengths to protect their bees not only because they are an economic and personal investment, but also because there has been an ongoing national epidemic of unhealthy bees. “Over the last ten years, there has been a tremendous amount of pressure on bees,” Cheri said. This pressure extends from the ever more common presence of the parasitic varroa mite, which sucks the blood of both adult bees and developing brood, to the destruction of entire hives through Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
CCD was first reported in October 2006 by beekeepers who inexplicably lost thirty to ninety percent of their hives – an unusually high amount. Ever since then, average hive loss has hovered around 33 percent for the past seven winters, with some fluctuation. CCD is characterized by a sudden loss of most worker bees with very few to no dead bee bodies present, but with the queen and brood remaining.
“It’s becoming really, really hard to keep bees alive in any circumstances,” said Carl Chesick, the head of the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville, North Carolina. Chesick and a team of volunteer researchers are working to create the industry’s first set of long term baseline data regarding honeybees. They hope to fully understand the modern stressors that bees face so that beekeepers and policy makers alike can make well-informed decisions about how to best protect these pollinators. “[Our research] is pretty unique in that universities and bee labs don’t do anything like this,” he said. “We’re not trying to prove anything right now. It’s very long term, very intensive.”
The Center for Honeybee Research’s main project is called Project Genesis. This three-year-old project studies twenty bee hives divided between two yards, one of which uses conventional beekeeping techniques such as a wax foundation in frames and spraying for mites and other issues, and the other in which the bees draw their own comb and do not receive treatment of any kind. The goal of this project is to see if there is a difference between conventional and natural beekeeping practices. So far, the researchers have noticed patterns, but it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions.
However, Chesick noted that the mite count is three times higher in the treated hives than in the untreated hives, a difference of approximately 40 mites versus 12. “I can’t think of why that would be,” Chesick said. “I’m just keeping facts…Somehow having those chemicals that are supposed to kill [the mites] are making them more hardy.”
Traditional beekeeping teaches that mites and other diseases can be treated through spraying, but there is a movement among beekeepers to take a more natural approach and employ techniques that require a larger time investment than spraying alone.
Richard Hanks, a longtime Master Beekeeper and past executive board member of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association, advises beekeepers to constantly renew their hives in order to break the brood cycle of the varroa mite. Renewal requires putting the queen bee into a new frame so that she can hatch fresh, uninfected brood. In addition, application of essential oils is a natural treatment that retards the mite’s growth.
However, these cures require that beekeepers maintain an artisanal level of production. With the bee population in decline, large-scale commercial bee farms are increasingly used to fill the gap, which perpetuates weak bees and unhealthy colonies.“We’re running puppy mills for bees right now,” Chesick said. “It’s possible to force bees as a product. How good of an idea that is, I’m not sure.”
Despite the new pressures on bees, Chesick and other bee advocates believe that ultimately, the bees will be fine; it’s ourselves we have to worry about. “The worry is not so much the bees,” Chesick said. “They’ll be able to survive. The problem is we need the bees.”
Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States every year and are responsible for one out of every three bites of food. A world without bees would still produce food, but prices would rise exorbitantly because people would be forced to pollinate by hand. In addition, the variety of foods that people eat on a regular basis would be greatly diminished, resulting in less diverse, flavorful, and nutritious food.
The Obama administration recently recognized the importance that pollinators play in our national economy by creating a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. A Pollinator Health Task Force comprised of individuals from fourteen government agencies are charged with implementing a Pollinator Research Action Plan, creating a Public Education Plan, and developing beneficial public-private partnerships. In addition, they will increase and improve pollinator habitats.
Although administrative action has the potential to benefit pollinator populations, Hanks and others believe that the issues facing bees are too holistic for a single government memorandum to possibly address. “The world thought there was a singular problem that was causing Colony Collapse and we live in a scientific world and think in our heart of hearts that for every problem there is a solution,” Hanks said. “But there is no one cause of Colony Collapse…It’s all the things in the existing environment that bring Colony Collapse.”
With the decline of the pollinator population receiving an increasingly high amount of media attention in the past few years, hobby beekeeping has become an ever more prevalent pastime for those hoping to help save the bees. Many of these new beekeepers are located in urban areas, which presents a new set of challenges as the bees are exposed to urban pollutants and pesticides.
Dr. Jennifer Leavey, the director of the Urban Honey Bee Project at Georgia Tech, is on the frontier of studying how honeybees survive in the urban environment of Midtown Atlanta. “We are interested in how habitat fragmentation affects genetic diversity in urban honeybee colonies, how pollution affects honeybees and where bees find forage in the city,” she said.
Although the study is just over one year old, Leavey has noticed promising patterns for this new honeybee territory. So far, researchers have not found higher levels of heavy metal contamination in honey from urban bees than from rural bees, and they have not experienced high levels of pest pressure, implying that urban areas might be a good place to keep bees.
“Most research done on honeybees is done in the context of agricultural settings, so almost everything we learn contributes to our understanding of bees in urban habitats,” Leavey said. As the number of beekeepers in urban areas continues to rise, research on city-slicking bees will become ever more important.
Tami Enright also contributes to the existing body of knowledge about beekeeping in an urban environment. She is the executive director of The Bee Cause Project, which aims to install observational bee hives in 1,000 schools. So far, she has installed hives in about 35 schools in the Charleston area as well as in a few local businesses. Most of her hives are healthy, and she contends that urban beekeeping, especially in conjunction with urban gardens, is a good step toward creating a holistically healthy environment. “Some bees even do better in urban than in non-urban areas,” she said, citing an example of a rural hive that died because of local municipal mosquito spraying.
The Urban Honey Bee Project and The Bee Cause Project have a second commonality: they both aim to educate others about the importance of pollinators and help people reconnect with nature. Leavey hopes to increase understanding and interest of how urban environments affect honeybees as well as engage the Georgia Tech campus and surrounding community in beekeeping. By exposing others to bees, hopefully they will learn that bees are not malicious and that they are an essential aspect of any ecosystem.
Enright echoes the mission of Leavey’s goals, but with the additional goal of helping children in particular reconnect with nature. “I think this generation is really detached from nature,” she said, citing examples of Nature Deficit Disorder and a general lack of knowledge regarding the natural world.
Urban environments provide a unique opportunity for bee educators to reach a larger audience than rural bee advocates. Enright said, “We have a goal of helping kids get connected with nature again. And we’re using the honeybees to do that.” The Bee Cause Project’s observational hives are especially effective at captivating the attention and imagination of children and adults alike by allowing people to peer into the inner life of hives. Some schools have even gone so far as to use the bees as a form of recreational therapy for children with prevalent emotional and behavioral needs.
The Bee Cause Project’s financial model ensures that no school in want of a hive is left forlorn. They adopted a “pay it forward” model where the schools receive a hive for free but then have to fundraise to the best of their ability for the next school. This model creates a sense of equality and community that not only benefits the local bee population, but also low-income students who may not have much access to nature.
“A lot of kids who are disadvantaged, for them to be able to say , ‘I have a garden at my school, I have a hive at my school…’ It’s a positive story for them to share and it gives them a boost,” Enright said.
The relationship between bees and humans extends far beyond the cityscape and the classroom. Bees serve as a mirror to society, exposing potential dangers of modern living of which we might not even be aware.
For instance, the chemical stew of modern industrial agriculture is reflected in beeswax and could possibly contribute to the decline of honeybee colonies. “Wax is like a paper towel,” said Chesick, from the Center for Honeybee Research. “It absorbs all these pollutants.”
The synergistic relationships among various pesticides from the neurotoxin organophosphate to the antibacterial glyphosate have not yet been studied in-depth, leaving scientists to examine the available signs of how a failed agricultural system affects bees, and by proxy, humans.
However, some scientific research regarding pesticide use and both bee and human health is strong enough in its conclusions to lead to pesticide-restricting policies. For example, the European Union adopted a proposal last year that banned the use of neonicotinoids – a class of pesticides that act as a neurotoxin and have been linked to colony collapse.
Cheri from Blue Pearl Farms sees a link between American society’s desire for perfection and the rampant use of pesticides as people attempt to create “perfect” gardens that do not – and cannot – naturally exist. In this quest for perfection, they ultimately create an environment that, while it may look picture-perfect, is disrupting balance in the ecosystem.
This imbalance creates a trap for bees as they continually bring pollutants into the hive, store them in the wax, and feed them to the brood. “They have a toxic environment that they can’t get out of,” Cheri said.
And bees are an integral part of any ecosystem’s natural balance. Richard Hanks from the South Carolina State Beekeeping Association said, “One of the things that [people] need to understand is that [bees] are part of the creation in which you and I live. They’re one-quarter inch wide and one half inch long, but they have a major, major impact on our lives.”
Both domestically and globally, people are beginning to recognize that impact. The next step is to take action. By avoiding pesticide use, planting native species of plants and flowers, and allowing more “imperfect” weeds in lawns and gardens, people can help protect pollinators – and by extension, ourselves. White, purple, blue, and yellow flowers are particularly beneficial to bees, as they are the easiest colors for bees to see.
Back on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest, Cheri has an abundance of colorful native flowers to keep her bees well fed. She also has a vegetable garden, which she believes is equally important for the health of bees and humans.
“I would really like to see people growing more of their own food and having gardens that they would feel comfortable eating,” she said. “It’s easy to grow lettuce. That’s a good place to start.”
“Nature-Deficit Disorder.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 29 Mar. 2012. Web.