Down to Earth: Saving Honey Bees, One Person at a Time

Valley Advocate, June 6, 2016, by Naila Moreira.

I’ve always had a thing for creepy crawlies. I was the kid who caught the wasp stuck in the classroom to let it out the window. And I still crouch to move a worm from the sidewalk into the grass.

So, when a colleague of mine, Sara Eddy, started her first beehive, I devoured her Facebook posts about the process. And this spring, I had a chance to visit her and the bees.

The hive sat pertly in her Amherst backyard, painted lavender and protected from bears by an electric fence. The smoker she uses to calm the bees waited in her driveway, puffing a stream of gray into the air from its metal spout.

Asked about bee stings, Eddy shrugged it off. “Last year I was stung three times,” she said. “But one of them was in front of Seelye,” the building at Smith College where Eddy works.

Her teenage children are less relaxed, she said, yet still attracted. “My daughter gets freaked out. But she’s an artist, and bees are turning up everywhere in her art.”

There’s just something compelling about bees. At age 29, Sylvia Plath — among our region’s most well-known poets — embarked on the adventure of beekeeping. The fuzzy yellow-brown insects soon swarmed into her writing, inspiring her famous sequence of bee poems.

Plath’s queen bees are metaphors for feminine power, leaders of an army of infertile female workers who protect the hive, collect food, and raise young.

“I stand in a column/ Of winged, unmiraculous women,” wrote Plath in her poem “Stings.” “Honey-drudgers. /I am no drudge.”

Besides Plath, our region has other special connections to honeybees. The walls of Seelye Hall have been home to a huge community of 40,000 bees for more than a decade. A 2012 effort to move the bees failed because the hive’s exact location couldn’t be found.

The creator of the modern beehive, Lorenzo Langstroth, also lived and worked here, serving as pastor for Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church in the 1840’s and 50’s. Sometimes called “The Father of American Beekeeping,” he was celebrated June 4 at the church’s yearly Bee Fest. And the first university apiary program in the nation was founded at the University of Massachusetts.

In Eddy’s backyard, I watched her honey-drudgers scurry near their long, slender queen on a hive frame pockmarked with brood cells and pollen.

Eddy says she began keeping bees in part to do her share to fight back against the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, an average of 30 percent of all hives yearly have failed to survive, according to USDA statistics. This past year saw a 44 percent hive loss nationwide.

But she soon found she was in for as much of a challenge as beekeepers everywhere.

Her first hive contracted the bane of beekeepers: varroa mites. These tiny tick-like pests are an invasive species first documented in the United States in 1987. Despite Eddy’s efforts to overcome the infestation, the hive succumbed. By spring, the bees were dead.

“They’re little vampires, sucking the blood out of bees,” says Dan Wright, Eddy’s beekeeping mentor, who owns about 20 hives at Hampshire College, Small Ones Farm in Amherst, and near the UMass Hadley farm. “But varroa itself won’t kill bees, it’s the disease load they’re passing around from bee to bee.”

Hives infested by varroa often survive the summer but fail in winter, when bees can’t leave the hive and must survive off their summer reserves of honey and strength.

A battle has also been raging over whether a new class of pesticides used since the 1990s, neonicotinoids (known as neonics), are partly responsible for colony collapse.

Neonics aren’t sprayed on fields but instead applied to seeds before planting, theoretically making them safer. Growing plants take up pesticide into their leaves and flowers as a “systemic” pesticides that only kills insects that eat the plant.

Used on crops that bees don’t pollinate like corn and soybeans, neonics shouldn’t reach bees. But in practice, bees may get exposed by several routes.

If not carefully handled, dust from treated seeds can waft away before and during planting. Studies have found neonics in soil, water, and bee favorites like dandelions near treated crops. Known toxins to bees, neonics can also interfere with their navigation, according to controlled studies where bees were fed the pesticide directly.

But so far, just one 2015 study has linked the amount of neonics actually present in the environment to increased levels of colony collapse. And where neonics are common, other bee toxins are often present in even higher amounts — especially pesticides sprayed by homeowners to kill mosquitoes and other pests, according to a separate 2015 study in the journal Nature.

“There is not enough evidence to call for a complete ban on the neonics — there are simply too many beekeepers successfully keeping healthy hives in areas of seed-treated crops,” notes professional apiarist Randy Oliver, who writes the blog

Experts now believe that no single problem prompts colony collapse. Varroa, pesticides, global warming, and habitat loss can all stress bees. Weakened by one problem, the hive simply can’t survive the others.

“You can’t just blame pesticides, you can’t just blame one thing. It’s a lot of factors coming together,” says Dan Conlon, who owns Warm Colors Apiary in Deerfield. He adds, however, that at least in New England, varroa mites “are the number one killers of bees.”

Conlon, who provides pollinator hives to farms, notes that farmers are often eager to work with apiarists to help minimize bees’ pesticide exposure, such as by spraying at night when bees aren’t active, or choosing non-persistent chemicals.

Conlon is also one of just 15 beekeepers nationwide USDA-certified to raise and sell Russian queens, a strain of bee resistant to varroa mites. Most honeybees today come from an Italian strain imported to the U.S. in the mid 1800s.

The Russian bees remove mites from the hive, grooming them off each other and the larvae. Conlon says his 1,200 hives, all housing Russian bees, no longer require chemicals for mite control.

“They live through the winter without any special attention, they take care of the mites pretty much by themselves,” he said. “They’re resistant to a lot of diseases. They’re just hardier than other bees.”

For the backyard beekeeper, this option may help provide a respite from the struggle to keep bees alive. “The future of beekeeping is like a three-legged stool,” said Alice Armen, a Montague resident who has kept bees for 16 years and recently bought three of Conlon’s queens. A broader gene pool including bees like the Russians, a decreased reliance on pesticides, and community sharing of knowledge and ideas will help bees recover, she said.

In terms of community, beginners hoping to own a hive can join the Franklin County or Massachusetts Beekeepers’ Associations for advice getting started and to meet potential beekeeping mentors. The Massachusetts Beekeepers’ Association will also offer hands-on workshops at its Annual Field Day June 18 at the UMass Agronomy Farm in South Deerfield.

Eddy went into the 2015-2016 winter, her second year keeping bees, with two hives of Italian bees. In spring, she discovered one hive was empty, despite having had no mites. At first, she said, she was devastated. But then she opened her surviving hive.

The number of bees had doubled. One hive had simply moved in with the other – perhaps because it lost its queen, or had been disturbed by a mouse Eddy found living underneath.

“They’re amazing,” she told me, as she slid a frame vibrating with bees back into the hive. “Sometimes I think, maybe this hobby is too expensive, and too much work. Because it is a lot of work. And it’s a lot of mental work, a lot of worry.” She smiled. “But then I come out here and I look at them, and … I just love them.”•

Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.