Health of Corvallis’ Honey Bees: The Sweet Rewards of Local Beekeeping

Photo by Lana Jones

Last Sunday, beekeepers came down to the first annual Corvallis Package Bee Day to pick up bees they ordered for new spring hives.

Corvallis, unlike Junction City or Eugene, doesn’t restrict beekeeping. Bees, like dogs, fall under nuisance law. I met with Jen Larsen, Karessa Torgerson, and Melanie Sorenson, owners of recently opened Nectar Bee Supply, to learn about keeping honeybees, Apis mellifera, in Corvallis.

“It’s quite compatible with suburban life,” said Sorenson.

“In Corvallis there are hives that are right along sidewalks and it’s okay,” Torgerson added. “People are more likely to die from lightning strike than bee sting.”

Stings are painful though and inevitable for beekeepers. Why not just buy honey from the market?

“There’s an element of risk. It’s challenging but the rewards are sweet,” Larsen said. “It’s literally honey on the tongue. It’s so sensual. You get your hands dirty. You smell like beeswax and smoke for days.”

There are more practical benefits from beekeeping too, like increased garden yield and helping support the bee population. Bee losses to colony collapse disorder this winter are expected to be above 40% once all the numbers are in.

“To be able to support the pollinators’ role in our ecosystem is a way we can be good stewards,” Sorenson added. “A lot of places are having trouble with habitat loss and excessive chemicals.”

Ramesh Sagili, assistant professor of horticulture at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab, said that hobby beekeepers can also make an important contribution to honeybee health.

“They can contribute to genetic diversity of honeybees. Our genetic pool is not very diverse,” he said.

Hobby beekeepers might buy their first queen but after that raise their own, a process that is too time consuming for commercial beekeepers.

“Hobby beekeeping can play a big role,” Ramesh said. “Their raising their own queens, adapting them to their own weather. They are contributing to the genetic diversity of honeybees.”

Photo by Lana Jones

For beekeepers, the cost of an occasional sting is small compared to the benefits of keeping bees. The general public might not feel the same way. Luckily, honeybees foraging away from their hive and even honeybee swarms are not aggressive. Swarming bees have moved out of their old hive and are on their way to setting up somewhere new.

“They don’t have anything to defend,”  Torgerson said. “They’re just looking for new home and they’re not a threat.”

Wasps are often aggressive though, which can lead to confusion because they look so much like honeybees.

“I’m always surprised at how people may not understand the difference between a yellow jacket, a wasp, and a honeybee,” Sorenson said. “It starts with Winnie the Pooh.”

Pooh Bear loves honey but it inexplicably comes from what looks like a paper wasp nest.

Paper wasps and yellow jackets can sting multiple times and be very aggressive. Unfortunately, bees look so similar to wasps that they get an undeserved reputation.

“The closer you get to honeybees that more you realize how gentle they are,” Sorenson said.

Larsen agreed. “I work bees for hours and don’t get stung at all,” she said. “It’s not in their interest to sting you.”

Become an Oregon Master Beekeeper

It’s only been running for two years and already close to 300 people in Oregon have participated the Oregon Master Beekeeper program. The program is a collaboration between OSU Extension and Oregon State Beekeepers Association.

Ramesh said that the program began because there was so much interest in beekeeping. The program is the tenth in the nation and statewide demand is so high there’s a waitlist.

“The unique thing about us is we require experience,” he said. “I’m not just asking them to take an exam. We also provide them a mentor. We are exposing beekeepers to real hive experience, where many programs aren’t doing that.”

Torgerson is a local mentor. She mentors a maximum of three apprentices at a time.

“It’s been a great program because new beekeepers are more likely to lose hives,” she said.

Photo by Jen Larsen

Larsen is a student in the program. She just completed the first level.

“It was incredible,” she said. “I totally credit my success to the program. I’m not going to say it was beginner’s luck, I think it was the help of my mentor.”

Community Bee Events

The Linn Benton Beekeepers Association meets the 4th Wednesday of every month in the south First Alternative Co-op community room at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is a free gathering to learn from experts, exchange information, and meet other beekeepers.

Buzz About Benton, a tour of local beekeepers’ backyard hives, is scheduled for June 30th. It’s a collaboration between the Corvallis Environmental Center and Nectar Bee Supply.

Find details on both events and local beekeeping from the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, http://orsba.org, Nectar Bee Supply, http://nectarbeesupply.wordpress.com, and the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab, http://honeybeelab.oregonstate.edu.

 

Photo by Jen Larsen

Poor Nutrition, Other Stressors, Continue to Plague Our Honey Bees

Beekeepers estimate bee deaths this year will be severe. The official numbers for the 2012-2013 winter won’t be available until early summer, but researchers are forecasting that 40 to 50 percent of hives were lost to colony collapse disorder.

Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon in which all of the adult bees disappear from a hive. Plenty of food remains in the hive and the queen is alive and present.

Ramesh Sagili, assistant professor of horticulture from the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab, said that the problem was not as pronounced in the Pacific Northwest as it is in other parts of the country.

“I’m not saying we’re doing very well,” said Sagili, “but when compared to other numbers, bees in the Pacific Northwest have fared significantly better.”

Sagili expects losses of more than 35 percent locally this year. Last year, the number was 22 percent.

The cause of colony collapse disorder is unknown.

“There is a consensus at least at this time that there is no one single pathogen or pest,” he said.

Mites, viruses, pesticides, fungicides, and poor nutrition are stressing bees, and the combination may be leading to the losses. Bees collect contaminated pollen from sprayed fields and bring pesticides back to the hive in small quantities. The contamination gets into the wax, where small quantities can eventually add up and become toxic.

Photo by Jen Larsen

Nutrition is a problem because monocropping (growing the same crops year after year) and habitat destruction limit the variety of pollen that bees collect.

“There are several of these factors that we think are playing a perfect storm role in compromising the immune system of the bee,” said Sagili.

Since no single cause has been found, researchers are focusing their efforts on trying to limit losses through better management. The Bee Informed project (www.beeinformed.org) is surveying beekeepers that have experienced success to discover what methods work.

The OSU Honey Bee Lab is conducting tightly controlled experiments involving flight cages. Researchers are feeding honey bees specific pollens to find out what nutrition the bees need to stay healthy. Hopefully the results will provide clues to how we can keep this integral pollinator alive.

By Lana Jones

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