A follow up to this past weekend’s class at Bastyr University, “The Basics of Bee Keeping”. Links are included for each of the handouts that were available at the end of class.
It seems that the world is starting to pay attention to the fact that our bee populations are declining. More people are recognizing the problem, and many of them want to do more than just talk about the problem. They want to get out there and raise their own bees. If this sounds like you, then I want to say, "Thank you!" Thanks for taking a step in the right direction. But before you run out and order a bunch of bees and equipment, there is a very important question that I would like you to consider. "Which bees are the right bees for you?"
I have asked many people that question, and more often than not, their response is one of confusion. Perhaps they didn't even know that there was more than one option. So let's clear things up, shall we? First and foremost, you be aware that there are 20,000 different species of bees, and here in the United States it is possible to find all the tools and information that you need to raise at least 3 different types. Specifically, there are honeybees, spring mason bees, and summer leafcutter bees, all of which can be successful here. But which is the right type for you?
To figure that out, the first thing you should consider is your goal. What you are trying to accomplish? Are you raising bees because you have heard they are in trouble and you just want to help? Are you an avid gardener looking to increase pollination in your own yard? Are you looking for a way to produce income from your bees? Do you just love honey and want to have buckets of it all to yourself? Do you have a family heritage that is leading you toward beekeeping? Depending on your answers, the type or species of bee that I would recommend will be very different. It could even be a bee that you didn't know existed before you started reading this article!
For the person who is simply wanting to help our struggling bee populations, there are a lot of means to that end, raising bees being just one of those means. What it really comes down to is which bees need our help the most. When we hear the phrase "save the bees", most of us get an image in our mind's eye of a cute little honey bee that desperately needs our help. But the fact of the matter is that native bees need help, too. Our native bees (mason bees, leafcutters, bumblebees, mining bees, and many others) are impacted by the same issues that plague the honey bee, such as loss of habitat, loss of food sources, and damage from pesticides and diseases. On top of that, the honeybee gets the majority of the attention, leaving our poor native bees with few to defend them. And yet, they are not only just as important as the honeybee, they may actually be more important. After all, the honeybee is a European import that arrived here in the early 1600's. Before that, all of the pollination in this country was done by native bees. And yet, they are often ignored and sometimes even scorned (by those whose livelihood is based on the honeybee). So who needs our help more? I would say the native bees win this round.
For those who are looking to increase pollination, honeybees seem like the obvious choice. Most traditional beekeepers today make less than half of their income from selling honey. Their income comes from renting their hives to farmers to pollinate their crops. They travel to California to pollinate almonds, to Washington to pollinate cherries and apples, to Texas to pollinate squash, and so on. Logically, if that's what the commercial guys are doing, then we should use the same kind of bees in our own yards. Well, not so fast... Most of us are looking to boost production in our own yard, not on acres upon acres of fruit trees. If you place a hive in your yard, the honeybees will travel long distances, sometimes as far as 2.5 miles away, collecting pollen and nectar. They don't stay confined to our backyards. Compare this to a spring mason bee, which stays within about 300 feet of it's nesting site. You are more likely to see a personal benefit with the native bee. Not only that, but our native bees are better pollinators than honeybees. They specialize in a type of pollination that a honeybee isn't able to replicate called "buzz pollination" and it is essential for certain food crops. Add to that the fact that our native bees only collect plain, dry, pollen - no nectar. This allows the pollen to fall away as it is carried, spreading easily, and that results in higher pollination rates. So why does anyone even bother using honey bees to pollinate? Because that's the way we've always done it! Very few will commit to trying a new way until it has been proven that it will be successful for them. And that will take time. But you can be one of the pioneers in your area by bucking the honeybee trend and embracing better pollination with native bees.
Maybe you just love bees, and you are hoping to earn a little extra money from some hobby level beekeeping. Or you could have a desire to run a full time business devoted to bees. For you, the answer comes down to how much time, effort, and money you have available to make that happen, and whether or not you can handle the physical requirements of the job. I won't lie to you - honeybees are hard work. I compare the commitment level required to a romantic relationship. With native bees you are just dating. You spend a little time, you spend a little money, you love every minute of it, but you can spend your time elsewhere and not get into trouble. With honeybees, though, you are married. Until you die. And even though you love them, you will get angry from time to time and fight. You will even get stung. But if you are willing to put in the time to make things work, it can be a beautiful thing! It's silly, I know, but it's the truth.
Selling honey is one way that I produce income, and it's not an insignificant portion of the total. But I also spend far more hours dealing with my honeybees than I spend doing all of the other various business things that I do. In the summer I spend several hours per week checking on my hives, more if a swarm urge strikes. And, of course, there is the time invested in the honey harvest! In the winter the bees come out rarely so you would think there is less work. But in reality, that's my only chance to catch up on repairing equipment, cleaning up the tools that have become caked with propolis, and getting set up for the next spring. From a financial standpoint, honeybees will set you back a bit. The hive equipment can be several hundred dollars. Smokers, tools and bee suits can be another hundred or two. The bees themselves will cost $150 or more. Altogether that's a pretty big investment to undertake when you can't even be sure if you will be able to keep them alive for the next year. But if you succeed, the income potential is there. You can sell honey, wax, propolis, pollen, and even queen bees and nuc hives, and make a pretty penny doing so. If your back can take it, that is. A full box of honey comb can weigh 90 pounds. If the thought of having to lift an angry, stinging, sticky, dripping box that weighs as much as a 12 year old boy sounds fun, then this is the job for you!
If, however, you find yourself hesitating, don't fret. There is income potential in the native bee world as well. It isn't as glamorous, but it also requires far less of you in terms of time, effort, and finances. You can start your first native bee hotel for as little as $15 if you use a recycled coffee can for a house. You can expect to spend about an hour the very first time you set up a bee house. With practice it takes about 3 minutes. There are no inspections required, no pests that would require chemical treatment, no queens that need to be replaced. I did, once, have to build a cage to protect a bee house from a squirrel that thought they looked tasty. And I have had to remove a bird nest from a bee house. And I have a tree frog that likes to sit on top of my nesting materials that I have relocated three years in a row. (Okay, maybe they were 3 different frogs). In the fall, the native bee nesting materials or eggs need to be be brought in to a safe place until spring to protect them from predators and predatory insects. The process of getting them ready for winter may take an hour for most people. Once you have a lot of bees it will take longer, but still nothing compared to their cousins. Bonus: native bees don't sting! And the lifting requirements are weighed in ounces instead of pounds. So what can you sell if you raise native bees? Bees, for starters. Native bees lay eggs, which are spun into cocoons. The cocoons can be sold locally to help get others started. Some companies, such as my affiliate partner Crown Bees, even offer a "buy back" program where you can mail cocoons to them, and they will mail you a check in return. Money can also be made by selling houses and nesting materials for these bees. So as far as income potential goes, any bee will do as long as it fits in with your idea of a commitment.
When you think of products manufactured by bees, the first thing you picture is honey. So it seems likely that some folks may want a hive of their own just so that they can have a massive amount of honey all to themselves. Native bees do not live in hives. They don't produce wax, and they don't produce honey. If it's honey you want, honeybees are your bees. Just keep things small, if you can. (Please, and thank you.) Packing many hives together in one place contributes to the spread of diseases amongst hives, and allows them to out-compete the native bees for food.
So now that you know which type of bee you would like to raise, how do you get started? That will be tackled in a future blog post. Until then, feel free to comment here with your questions or reach out to me directly.
Just this week, I read an article stating that the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee had been placed on the endangered species list after a rapid decline. Previously abundant in the United States, their numbers have dwindled down to 13% of what they used to be. This comes right on the heels of reports that seven species of bees in the state of Hawaii were added to the endangered species list. In the case of the Hawaiian bees, two of the species have decreased in numbers so much, that they are now found in only one location across the entire state. Of course, some websites will tell you not to worry, because honey bees aren't endangered. Yet. So should you be worried? And if you are, is there anything that can be done about it?
Before answer that, I need to get one thing out of the way. I have a bone to pick with the whole "save the honey bees" concept. Don't get me wrong, honey bees absolutely do need help. The work that they do every day keeps many economies alive. I love the honey bee, I have several of my own hives, and sales of honey are a key part of my business. They are amazing creatures, fascinating little engineers, and they make miracles happen inside their hives. Their honey is not only delicious, but it has medicinal value as well. Manuka honey, from New Zealand, is currently being studied for use as a topical wound treatment. And, of course, many people eat raw honey because they feel it reduces their allergy and cold symptoms. So why be a hater then, Katy? Well, it's not hate, per se, rather it is an irresistible urge to redirect the focus from the honey bee to ALL bees. And because honey bees are already getting the lion's share of attention, I choose to emphasize the (often ignored) native bees.
There is a second reason to focus on native bee species. Location, location, location! Many animals are found in only one specific area. Polar bears live near the Arctic circle. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. Kangaroos are found in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. Any one of us can recognize that if you were to move all the polar bears to Australia and all of the orangutans to the Arctic that it wouldn't work out very well. Those animals aren't meant to be there - the weather is all wrong, they foods they need aren't there, and they don't have the right kind of habitat for making their homes and raising their young. Bees are no different. We have native bees that live in very specific parts of the world with requirements for life that are not the same as other bees from other areas, or even a different species in the same area. I share the same environment as a few native bees, and so it makes sense for me to focus on giving aid to my native bees. If you are from the Deep South, your native bees may be different than mine. Your actions will affect your bees more than it will affect mine. If you are in another country, or another continent, then this is even more true. This is why I say that it matters for every one of us to focus on our native bees, plants, and animal species.
Hawaii is a perfect example of what happens when humans lose sight of protecting our native species. During the height of sugar cane production in the late 1800's, rats were a nuisance for farmers. So farmers introduced the mongoose in an effort to kill the rats. What they didn't realize, was that rats are nocturnal, and mongooses hunt during the day. So the hungry and opportunistic mongooses, not having their native foods available, found something else to eat - eggs. The native ground-nesting bird populations on the islands were decimated, resulting in 8 species being added to the endangered species list. Sea turtles, also now endangered, were brought to the brink of disaster due to mongooses eating both their beach-laid eggs and their hatchlings. The islands of Kauai and Lanai never introduced the mongoose, but that doesn't mean they haven't had their share of ecosystem tampering. Just this month, during a visit to Kauai, I saw firsthand what it looks like when an introduced species gains a foothold on the islands. Every morning at sunrise, I could hear a massive number of birds squawking and chirping and creating a huge ruckus. They would fly out of the coconut palms, and be gone all day. Then, at sunset, they would return all at once. They would spend 30 minutes or more flying from one palm tree to the next, diving across the sky, and making an incredible amount of noise in the process. At first, I thought it was rather a beautiful sight. The birds, ring-necked parakeets, are bright green and well over a foot in length. At first glance, they seem to belong here - they seem so tropical. But the fact of the matter is that they are injurious to native Hawaiian wildlife, and they absolutely destroy fruit orchards (eating not just the fruit, but even the leaf buds). As beautiful as these birds are, they were never supposed to be a part of the Hawaiian ecology.
It may be too late for Hawaii in some respects. While on Kauai, we stopped in at the Kilohana Plantation, where I had the best mai tai ever. We were treated to a demonstration of a sugar cane press from long ago, the juice produced going straight into our mai tais with a vanilla simple syrup and Koloa Rum (amongst other things). We were told that the vanilla syrup is made in-house, and that the vanilla is all hand-pollinated. Why? Because it was only pollinated by one bee species on the island and it no longer exists. Much like tomatoes, peppers, and blueberries on the mainland, that vanilla was a plant that needed specialized pollination. They could have a billion honey bees, and it wouldn't do any good because it was the native bee that was specialized to pollinate the native plant. And now Hylaeus hilaris and Hylaeus kuakea, the two most critically endangered Hawaiian bees, are only found in one location. What crops will be affected when they are gone? How many bees and crops will disappear before we wake up and realize that we can't hand-pollinate everything?
Our bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship that has to be protected, or we will lose them both. It is vital to understand that everything in an ecosystem works together. If you lose one piece of the puzzle, it's not quite right. If you lose too many pieces, then it all falls apart. We are starting to see pieces going missing. First, the 7 yellow-faced bees in Hawaii. Now the rusty-patched bumblebee. Remember, honey bees don't "buzz pollinate", only our native bees do that. Without buzz pollination, we will lose the crops that rely on it -- peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, pumpkins, etc. I don't know about you, but I really enjoy those foods and I don't want to lose them.
By now you can probably see why we should care about native bees. So what can we do about it? We can't just scream and holler and expect the world to change. Change starts small. I am doing things differently. I hope you will, too. When enough of us alter our behavior, then society will change because we are society. So here it is, three things you can personally do to make a difference.
- Educate yourself, and spread the word. More people making small changes means a bigger overall impact.
- Stop doing things that kill bees. If you just can't handle weeds in your lawn or growing in the cracks of the driveway, dig them - don't spray. Bees bring the chemical coated pollen home, killing their larvae and contaminating wax (in honey bee hives - most native bees don't produce wax). If you have a garden, don't rake up every last leaf - you are probably raking up all of next year's baby ground-nesting bees. Don't cut down every single dead stem when fall comes - many bees use those stems to hold their eggs, larvae, or cocoons until they hatch in late spring. Stop buying conventionally grown produce - the pesticides used to make it beautiful for the market kills bees.
- Do things that are helpful to bees. Give them native plants and non-invasive introduced plants for food, grown without pesticides. If you are local to the PacNW, you can find native and bee-friendly plant lists here, here, and here. You can also ask for help at a reputable nursery like Molbak's or Skye Nursery. (Sorry, Big Box Store, you don't make the cut here.) For the especially lazy among us, just plant herbs and let your dandelions grow. You will be an insect hero. Give the bees a place to live and raise their young. For native bees, this can be as simple as leaving one small area of your yard free from mowing, raking, and clipping. You can take it a step further by providing a house and nesting materials which are designed to give bees the best possible chance of survival (available in my bee shop). Consider adding a water source. Around here, finding water isn't usually a problem, but putting a few stones into a shallow tray of water can help if it gets especially dry. Support organic farming practices by purchasing foods that are certified organic. If budget is an issue, start with replacing just one fruit or vegetable that you buy regularly, and dedicate yourself to do more when you can.
It's not too late. But we are on the verge. Make a change now, or pay for it with our future.
And yes, it is mongooses. I checked. ;p