The Thing About Bees

Bees are the most incredible insects on the planet. They have been buzzing around for hundreds of thousands of years, and are responsible for the pollination of as much as 80 percent of flowering plants. In turn, at least 30 percent of the world’s food supply is reliant on pollination, which makes us highly reliant on bees.

On the downside, too many people don’t appreciate the value of bees, plus right now, billions of honeybees are dying all over the world. This doesn’t only affect honey supply, it affects our food chain; and the dire warning is that if we don’t save the world’s bees, we can expect the demise of humanity.

Of course bees make honey, which is considered by many to be a top survival food with incredible medicinal value. Described as a broad-spectrum healer, raw, organic, unfiltered, non-irradiated honey is a top nutrient packed with antioxidants, vitamins, probiotics and minerals. Although sugar-rich, raw organic honey can lower serum cholesterol and won’t spike blood-sugar levels. Local honey has also be shown, by some research studies, to help build immunity to seasonal allergies, by providing small quantities of the allergen (pollen for instance) in the same way as a vaccine does. This means that if you either have beehives that produce local honey, or source honey from hives close to where you live, you can help to protect your health.

Bearing in mind that a huge percentage of store-bought honey has had the pollen filtered out of it, probably to hide its source (which is very common in honey produced in China), and irradiation (common throughout commercial production of honey) destroys nutrients, if you want to reap the benefits of honey, you need to make sure it is pure and organic. This is without any doubt one of the reasons an increasing number of people in urban areas are keeping their own beehives.

Bees and the Environment

There are about 20,000 species of bees, including bumblebees, killer bees, and of course honeybees, which are valuable social insects that live in large colonies where they produce honey from nectar and pollen, that they store in honeycombs for food. While honeybees will find tree crevices and other suitable habitats for their nests, humans have been providing manmade hives for honey-producing bees for more than 160 years, to be able to harvest and eat, use or sell the honey the bees make. Left alone, and harvested without fiddling with its content in any way, honey is potentially one of the purest nutritional foods on the plant.

But not only are humans changing the nutritional structure of honey (sometimes adding other non-nutritional and now known-to-be-harmful sugars to commercial honey), they are also making products that mimic honey, that are in fact primarily made of unhealthy corn sugar. Add to this the demise of the honeybee.

While many people in the world are extremely worried about bees disappearing, the global decimation of honeybee colonies remains largely a mystery. One of the most popular theories is that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that results in bees dying and leaving the colony, is caused by neonicotinoids (also known as neonics). These are systemic pesticides commonly used to treat seeds that are produced for sale for both garden and agricultural use. Introduced in the 1990s as a class of pesticide less toxic to humans than others, they are used throughout the world and represent a billion dollar business. Perhaps ironically, they are widely used to treat some of the most infamous genetically modified crops: canola, corn and soy – so humans are in fact taking a double whammy.

In 1999 imidacloprid, a pesticide made by Bayer, was banned as a “seed dressing” for sunflowers in France. This followed the death of an estimated one-third of all honeybees in France. Five years later this pesticie was banned for use with sweetcorn as well as sunflowers. In 2008, the German government banned the systemic pesticide clothianidin; and subsequently the French refused to allow its use at all.

In 2013 the European Union banned neonicotinoids for two years. At the time the USA had refused to agree that pesticides were the primary cause of CCD. In a report drawn up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (DoA), a number of different elements were blamed: these included viruses, bacteria, a parasite mite, as well as poor nutrition and genetics. Ironically, that same year, the US DoA along with scientists from the University of Maryland released a report that positively linked 35 harmful pesticides, together with high percentages of fungicide, to the demise of honeybees living in “managed” colonies.

In North Dakota, the USA’s leading producer of honey, beekeepers took Bayer to court in 1995 after imidacloprid had been used to treat oilseed rape, and more than a third of their honeybees had died. In 2013 a non-regulatory pollinator plan was introduced to try and protect honeybees by reducing their exposure to pesticides. Even though honey production was still thriving, against the odds, it was reported that beekeepers were struggling to keep bee colonies healthy. Beekeepers are still reportedly battling the odds.

More recently, lawmakers in Ontario, Canada proposed regulations that will reduce the volume of land planted by corn and soy by 80 percent by 2017. If accepted, the regulations will become law this month (July 2015), and should (indirectly) help protect the bees because these pesticides won’t be needed in such volumes.

In April 2015 the Portland City Commission in Oregon banned neonicotinoid pesticides in an attempt to protect honeybees, following the example of at least seven other municipalities in the state.

Also in April, the US EPA announced it is “unlikely to approve” new neonicotinoid pesticide use, but (keeping its options open) might consider emergency use if a “new pest issue” arises. Describing this as “an interim position,” the agency stated it needs “new bee safety studies” to be able to complete “new pollinator risk assessments.” Its announcement has no affect on products already on the market, so its impact is difficult if not impossible to assess. Additionally, there is some concern that the EPA generally relies on science funded by industry (which would of course include some of the high-powered manufacturers of neonics) rather than more objective peer-reviewed studies. This means that the bulk of the research on the topic may very well be biased.

But there is still not consensus regarding the decline of honeybees. Another popular theory is that CCD is caused by the varroa mite that make the bees in the hive especially vulnerable, particularly in bad weather conditions. It’s probably a bit of both, and very possibly also due to other factors we don’t understand, possibly even changing weather patterns. Whatever the cause, apart from bees, it is the farmers who grow vegetables, and nursery and specialty crops like fruit and nuts who suffer most.

Ultimately, without pollination, agriculture cannot survive, and since bees are the leading plant pollinators, without them it is quite possible humankind will die.

How Beekeeping Has Changed

Surprisingly, beekeeping has not changed much in the past century. Unlike other forms of agriculture that have become mechanized, beekeeping remains a primarily manual operation. Furthermore, the most common hives used by beekeepers internationally today are based on the design of traditional wooden hives that were invented by American Lorenzo Langstroth and patented in 1862. This then groundbreaking invention, described in the inventor’s own 19th century publication, A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee, allowed beekeepers to remove honey from the hives without displacing or unsettling the bees. Up until then, beekeepers had to literally destroy to hive to get the honey.

Langstroth’s hive design was based on the principle that there must be space 3/8” or 9.5 mm wide within the hive for bees to move in and around the honeycomb. Smaller spaces were sealed while wider spaces were filled with comb. His system made it easy to inspect the comb, and also made it possible to transfer bee colonies between hives, in a manner that was safe for both the bees and beekeeper. The dimension of hives hasn’t changed much in 100 years either, although DIY hives kept by hobbyists are generally smaller.

Traditional Langstroth hives incorporate a number of wooden boxes (also known as bodies) and supers. Generally, the queen bee lives in the lowest box, which is usually a lot deeper than the others. This is where she lays her eggs and where the newly hatched larvae are cared for. Honey stores for the bees are kept in a deep box above queen bee’s box and below the slightly smaller-sized supers where honey is harvested. The frames within Langstroth hives are reinforced with wire so that each can hold at least 25 lbs or 11 kg honey.

While Lorenzo Langstroth is regarded as the father of modern beekeeping, there were other inventions around his time that also made their mark on beekeeping. These include the wax-comb foundation (1857) that made it possible to produce straight, high-quality honeycomb; a centrifugal honey extractor (1865); and the original bellows smoker invented by Moses Quinby (said to be the first commercial US beekeeper) in 1870 to calm and control bees. In 1944 H. Laidlaw developed a machine that was designed to artificially inseminate queen bees.

As commercial beekeeping increased in popularity, there was a need to pack and sell the honey. The first specialized packing plants were developed in the 1920s, and there is no doubt that those utilized today are considerably more sophisticated than they were then, indicated at least some change in beekeeping in the past century.

But the production of honey is still not perfect, and one of the problems beekeepers face is that honeycomb often breaks when they extract the honey. Over time some beekeepers have tried placing additional wire across frames, end-to-end to make them stronger, while others have started experimenting with plastic materials to make the frames and combs. So far only plastic with a vinyl base has been found to be acceptable for use. However, there are plastic bee hives and frames on the market.

Another development was in the 1950s, when beekeepers in the US introduced a service supplying portable bee colonies to farmers during the growing season. Most were colonies of honeybees that had been introduced to the American continent with the first white settlers in the 17th century. The need to move hives led to the development of special hive loaders that could be mounted onto trucks, but these in themselves have not had much of an impact on bee keeping as such.

Keeping Bees For Honey

The honey industry in the US alone is said to be worth more than $300 million annually (2010 agricultural crops as a result of honey bee pollination is valued at more than $19 billion). In addition, many individuals keep bees so they can harvest their own organic honey, for their own use or to establish a small business or sell via farmers’ markets or at farm stalls.

The fact is that beehives can be kept just about anywhere, though you do need to know what beekeeping entails, and you will need the correct equipment. Many people keep bees successfully in urban areas, either in the garden or on a rooftop. Either way the spot needs to be relatively undisturbed, and you will need sufficient space to accommodate however many beehives you are going to keep. The key is having the right kind of hive that makes it easy to remove the honey, and knowing how to control the bees.

So can you keep bees that will make you delicious, organic honey all year round? The answer is a resounding yes.

People keep bees for honey all over the world. However, in some countries you will need a permit, and in others beehives must be registered with the authorities. For instance in Australia hives must be registered in your state’s Department of Primary Industries. At one time most North American cities prohibited beekeeping; nowadays, while local authorities in the US do regulate beekeeping, and many insist that beehives are registered, most do now allow urban beehives.

Los Angeles has been largely a lone US city in outlawing beekeeping (it was banned in 1879), though last heard, the city council was reviewing its zoning laws to make beekeeping legal. The stupidity was that the older city officials believed bees attacked fruit, and so their stance against bees was to try and preserve crops. Happily, contemporary councilors realize that a lack of pollinators puts our long-term food security seriously at risk.

Ultimately, backyard beekeeping is not going to ever replace commercial beekeeping (which in itself clearly needs controls). But there is no doubt that it can go a long way to keeping health bees in the environment, and it can play a huge role in producing healthy organic honey that is good for us.

Bees in an Urban Environment

Traditionally beekeeping was a country pastime that took place largely away from towns and villages. One of the reasons for this was that people were instinctively afraid of bees… because they do sting, and there are people who are allergic to bee stings. But, as the report that supported legalization in LA stated, honeybees are in fact not naturally aggressive, and they will only sting in self-defense of a hive.

Now there is a movement in the US that maintains the cities are key to saving honeybees. There is also growing evidence that bees are thriving in urban areas. For instance, Noah Wilson-Rich, founder and chief scientific officer of the Boston-based The Best Bees Company, has found that urban bees in the heart of his city (Boston) have a much higher survival rate than those in the surrounding rural and even suburban areas within the city limits. Furthermore, the city bees produce considerably more honey than their country cousins.

Wilson-Rich has become an active advocate for urban beekeeping that he believes is essential for a sustainable future, not only for bees, but humans as well. His research reveals some amazing inner-city buildings in the USA where you will find beehives, including The White House; the Wells Fargo building (which is Denver’s tallest building); the InterContinental Hotel Times Square in New York; Columbia Center in Seattle that claims fame for being the tallest building in the US west of the Mississippi River; the Chicago City Hall; and the Fox News building in New York.
But it isn’t just in the US that you will find urban beekeepers. Top beekeeping cities can be found on multiple continents, and they include London, New York, Chicago, Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal, and Johannesburg, as well as Melbourne and Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Quite literally, when it comes to beekeeping in urban areas anywhere in the world, the sky’s the limit!

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