Where’s the buzz? Local beekeepers hope to help ailing insects (and ourselves)

If you’ve noticed there are still honey bees buzzing around your yard and garden this spring, you may want to thank a local bee keeper. We’ve reported on the local and national decline in bee colony health (see Xpress Jan. 4, 2011), with beekeepers observing a so-called “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious malady that leaves a live queen and immature bees but few or no adult workers—but that’s not the only thing killing the bees.

“Bees are being lost in the same numbers…and we’re no closer to isolating a single cause,” says Carl Chesick, Director of the WNC Center for Honeybee Research, a recently-formed natural beekeeping group here in Asheville.

David Tarpy, Associate Professor of Entomology at North Carolina State University, agrees, adding his concern that the problem isn’t getting the same level of public attention as before. “Because colony collapse disorder has not yet been ‘solved,’ the media hasn’t been focusing on the issue like it was when first described,” says Tarpy. “Nonetheless, the threats facing honey bees have not changed in recent years, with almost one-third of the managed beehives in the U.S. dying each year.”

Fortunately, the local group Friends of Honeybees is stepping up with some solutions. In addition to the restaurant campaign — with its so-called “life’s work amulet,” a necklace containing a drop of honey, the life’s work of a single bee — the group is promoting some new outreach projects including its “Black Jar” honey-tasting competition. It’s novel, FOHB’s N’ann Harp says, in that the judges will not actually see the honeys as they usually would: they will compare on taste alone. In this way, organizers say, producers can skip the filtration step commonly associated with commercial honeys and preserve the full-bodied taste, as well as the nutritional value, of honey in its natural state. Contest entries will be accepted beginning June 1; winners will receive awards of $300, $150 and $75.

The Black Jar Honey Competition, sponsored by the WNC Center for Honeybee Research, is intended to celebrate the beekeepers of western North Carolina and spotlight the diversity of nectar produced in our local area. “Often, honey on local retail shelves isn’t even produced in the U.S.,” says Chesick, “and unless someone knows a beekeeper or scours local tailgate markets they miss the rewarding flavor of our native flora.”

“It helps the small beekeeper who doesn’t have the means to market his hard work,” Chesick explains, ”and it opens the door for the discerning consumer who would like to support and savor truly local honey. Many folks don’t realize honey produced just a few miles apart can have completely different color, flavor, and aroma. I believe this will be a win-win for everyone involved.”

In addition to acknowledging beekeepers for producing great-tasting honey, the Center will offer these varietals for sale—with the entrant’s own label attached—to introduce these unique products to the buying public.

Entries will be accepted now through August 15 and winners will be announced September 24. Harp would like to see local chefs test their mettle as judges, in a panel reflecting the cultural diversity that’s Asheville. For details on these programs or to receive an entry form and instructions for entering the honey tasting competition, navigate to: www.Friendsofhoneybees.net or www.wncbees.org.

Bees provide pollination services for billions of dollars worth of agricultural crops each year; Harp considers the threats facing bees as a wake up call for the rest of us.

“Basically, we’re all dead-and-don’t-know-it if we refuse to wake up, follow the bees’ lead, and build a global colony of humans working in a gracefully-synched way,” Harp says, “to save the best friend our species has got: the honey bee.”


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6 thoughts on “Where’s the buzz? Local beekeepers hope to help ailing insects (and ourselves)

  1. Sam

    No, in fact I am noticing many more honeybees and other pollinizers (especially bumblebees, a native pollinizer, where honeybees are non-native to the Americas) than in years past. Please provide testimony from one beekeeper (not bee researcher or bee bureaucrat) who has lost an unusual quantity of bees.

    I have been following this story closely for some time and the hive destruction or abandonment is always happening to somebody somewhere else. The story is always about honeybee education and pumping up some research program or group fund-raising event.

  2. bill smith

    I agree with Sam. Most small-time beekeepers I know have not experience ‘colony collapse’. It would appear CCD is effecting the big commercial beekeepers, and perhaps as a matter of scale.

    In addition, the misnomer about honeybees doing the majority of our pollinating needs to be dispelled. There are myriad insects that pollinate the various fruits, nuts and whatnot we all enjoy. Commercial-sized ‘beekeepers’ who truck in flatbeds of hives to pollinate monoculture commercial crops may be effected, but small farms and orchards are much less likely to be bothered as they are not as reliant upon such monolithic approaches.

  3. Curious

    Sam comments “The story is always about honeybee education and pumping up some research program or group fund-raising event.”

    Is Friends of Honey Bees a registered non-profit? Do they release their financial info? The website doesn’t give any names for officers and board members. They are asking for memberships at $25 and selling merchandise for $150.

  4. Carl Chesick

    If Sam is seeing more bees it’s because we’ve added so many hundred new beekeepers to the local area the last few years. And local beekeepers have been losing a lot of hives – about 30 % a year on average. Not CCD but dead is dead. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, mites, viruses and fungi. What we don’t have are answers. It’s only because beekeepers keep replacing bees that 30% losses “only” lead to a 2% cumulative loss each year.

  5. braidedworld

    Hi, Sam,
    Not folowing your logic exactly. Researchers ARE beekeepers. And small scale beekeepers are BECOMING researchers, as some forward thinking researcher-beekeepers have hoped would happen.

    It would be nice if the answers were as simple as you hopefully suggest. Reality begs to differ.

    It was in 2004 when I was a samll rural WNC beekeeper that I first experienced CCD, on top of all of the other ‘normal’ things that can go wrong in beekeeping.

    It’s a pretty humbling, complex experience that challenges EVERYone who likes to EAT, not just those of us who enjoy working with pollinators, including honey bees. Try it yourself and see.

    Which reminds me: What % of popular food crops grown in the U.S. are non-native?

  6. steve

    I have talked to a lot of beekeepers and, yes, smaller operators have lost hives. Sorry, this is reality. I do believe that those who farm out their colonies – bigger operators – expose themselves to more risk, whatever it is that is causing CCD. You may know what pesticides your neighbors use but you won’t know what is going on in nearby fields when you lease your bees to a farmer in the next state. I wove all of this and more, including the emotional impact, into my novel BUZZ http://www.indigotreepublishing.com
    I will try to get some of my beekeeper friends to respond to this. However, they don’t hang out on the web. CCD is very real.

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