On a sunny afternoon last fall, I got a phone call from my dad.

“Tessa, guess what!?”

I could already hear the excitement in his voice. “What?”

“We’re getting bees!!”

imageIn retrospect, this shouldn’t have surprised me that much. My parents have a pretty big garden, and my dad has a notorious green thumb. And he loves bees. Here’s the catch: my parents live in suburbia, and our backyard is really not that big.

In the past year I have read a good deal about the importance of bees, and how their decline could have disastrous effects on the environment, the economy, and human quality of life (which I will elaborate on later). Having bees is, in effect, one of the most sustainable things that we can do. As excited as I was, I had a few concerns. After all, having bees in a suburban neighborhood is not something people do often.

At first I was worried that I might get stung, because I’m slightly allergic to bees. Then I was worried that they would bother the neighbors, because I heard that they are attracted to swimming pools. Then I was worried that my yellow lab would taunt the hive and get swarmed. Well, we have now had the hive for two months, and I was pretty much worried for nothing.

Honeybees are amazing. They are self-organized, efficient, and a vital part of our ecosystems. They are responsible for pollinating a vast majority of our crops – without them, our grocery stores would look much different. So what’s happening to them?

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In a TED talk entitled Why Bees are Disappearing, Martha Spivak outlines four major reasons that we are seeing a frightening decline in the bee populations:
1. Flowerless landscapes: Bees in certain areas have to travel great distances to reach flowers to pollinate (Spivak calls this “agricultural food deserts”). In addition, farmers since WWII have started using synthetic fertilizers to replenish the soil instead of planting rejuvenating crops such as alfalfa and clover. Bees love alfalfa and clover, as they are high in protein and therefore an excellent food source.
2. Herbicides and Pesticides: These are used to keep weeds and unwanted bugs off of agricultural plants, but are extremely harmful to bees. A high enough concentration can almost immediately kill a bee that lands on the plant to pollinate; a lower concentration can even disorient a bee to the point where it can’t find its way back to the hive.
3. Larger crop monocultures: Diversity is imperative for ecosystems and also for bees; planting immensely large areas with only one type of crop is not healthy for bees.
4. Parasites: Parasites are natural “predators” that keep bee populations in check. However, parasites such as the varroa destructor mite seriously threaten bee colonies in addition to the previously stated threats.

So how do we fix this? Spivak gives us some easy ways for us to help.
1. Plant more flowers and encourage others to do so. Even if you live in a tiny urban apartment, get some window boxes!
2. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides in your garden. A little weeding is good for you, anyway.
3. Encourage your local municipality to plant local, bee-friendly plants along roads and highways and in parks and gardens.
4. Start your own hive! It’s not as hard as you would imagine.

Below there is a picture labeling the parts of the hive. The deep super is where the bees make most of their honey; this is not the honey that we harvest, because it’s what the bees use for energy during the winter. Above that is the queen excluder – a screen preventing the queen bee from going into the super. The super is where the bees put the “extra honey,” or the honey that we will harvest. We don’t have any honey in our super yet, but we hopefully will by the end of the summer.

image (1)Now more about our hive: My dad guesses that we now have about 10,000 bees in the hive. This summer, they will start to “swarm,” which indicates that they are about to split the hive in two. Before this happens, a second queen bee is born. When she is mature, she will take half of the existing hive to start a colony elsewhere. Our hive will repopulate in the following year.

I am around the beehive almost every day checking on the garden, and the bees don’t so much as give me a second glance. I often sit in front of the hive and just watch them go in and out. Bees can sense fear and anxiety, so the calmer you are, the better. We got the hive a couple of months too late for them to really help with the pollination of our garden; next year we expect our fruit trees and bushes to look like they’re on steroids (I can’t wait!).

Fun facts about bees:
• Bees collect resins from certain plants and place it in the nest. The resin, now called propolis, is a natural disinfectant, and keeps dangerous bacteria, mold, and germs from harming the hive.
• Every hive has “guards,” or bees that stand watch and make sure that no other foreign bees from other hives enter their hive
• Honey is the only food that never spoils
• Honey bees’ wings beat at around 200 beats per second
• Worker bees, or the pollinating bees, are all female (and live for about 6 weeks!)

The moral of the story is that anyone can have a beehive – you don’t need to be an expert or have a lot of land. It has been wonderful so far learning about and taking care of our hive, and I can’t wait to see the “fruits” of our labor!

Beehive Image source: http://getbuzzingaboutbees.com/beekeeping/parts-of-a-bee-hive-–-the-brood-boxes

– Tessa Schreiner