The Buzz about Bees

by Stevie Zvereva

Urban beekeeping is on the rise, part of a growing international trend.

At a Peoria City Council meeting at the end of March, local beekeeper Janet Hart addressed a barrage of questions from council members and the mayor. On the table, the first reading of a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission to amend sections of the city code related to beekeeping—which, prior to April 12th, was prohibited within city limits.

The concerns were legitimate: how to regulate the commercial business of bees and their products; how to protect neighbors’ health concerns; how to verify bees are being bred for “non-swarming characteristics and gentleness.” In short, bees sting. And that’s scary.

“People have always had a natural fear of bees because they can sting you,” says Mark Kilty, president of the Heart of Illinois Beekeepers Association (HOIBA). “But that’s the biggest misconception. The honeybee actually won’t sting you unless you try to kill it, because it commits suicide when it stings you... As long as you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.”

A five-year hobby beekeeper, Kilty could talk for hours and only brush the surface of a pursuit that intrigues farmers, rural residents and increasingly, urban dwellers. Contrary to popular belief, the motivation for beekeeping is rarely the honey, he explains—which you won’t even be able to extract until a couple years into the hobby. It’s more about the challenge “just to keep them alive.”

And then there’s the chance to make a difference in growing the bee population—the pollinators that are so central to our food supply and ecosystem. The HOIBA is dedicated to good beekeeping management and practices, the pollination of crops, honey production and general education about bees in central Illinois—an increasingly important mission as those indispensable pollinators have been in international decline for the last decade.

We’ve heard it for years: the bees are dying. But in the first-ever global assessment of pollinators, released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in February, researchers provided proof that a growing number of pollinator species are being driven toward extinction. That includes not only 20,000 wild bee species, but also butterflies, moths and wasps—spelling major trouble for the global food industry. Between $235 billion and $577 billion of the world’s food output depends on pollinators, according to the report. And the alarms are sounding.

Created by the White House in 2014, the Pollinator Health Task Force is working to reverse this trend—calling on the EPA to protect bees from harmful pesticide exposure—and some companies are following suit. Since 2008, Häagen-Dazs ice cream has partnered with leading research facilities to donate over a million dollars to honeybee research. And in a recent attempt to draw attention to the species’ plight, General Mills temporarily dropped its beloved bee mascot from Honey Nut Cheerios boxes, among other, more substantive efforts, from creating bee-friendly habitats in its headquarters state of Minnesota to funding a bee-friendly almond orchard in California.

“There’s so much stress on the hive now,” Kilty says. “You really have to keep an eye on them.” He describes the mystery of colony collapse disorder—a blanket term for the recent, unexplained phenomenon of worker bees fleeing the hive. A decade ago, beekeepers began to report losses of some 30 to 90 percent of their hives, describing the sudden disappearance of adult honey bees, leaving behind an abandoned but live queen and her brood, and generally, no dead bodies present. It has all the elements of a whodunit crime, and the lineup of suspects is lengthy.

For one, there’s pesticide toxicity. While a single dose at a low concentration may not cause harm, the cumulative effects over the life cycle of a colony could be irreversible, suggests the Pesticide Action Network. And because current tests generally look only at the effects of a single pesticide at a time, the synergistic impacts of any given combination remain largely unknown. Then there’s the varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attaches itself to bees, and if left untreated, eventually kills the entire colony. It’s wreaked havoc on local hives, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, suggests Kilty. Other mortal threats include the wax moth and hive beetle—highly destructive pests that cause damage to comb, stored honey and pollen—as well as climate change and rough winters.

This hydra-headed combination of vulnerabilities places a lot of pressure on the beekeeper, says Kilty. “They have to stay involved and keep their head inside the hive so they know what’s going on.” Staying tuned to the bees also prevents the development of an aggressive hive.

Diva Queens
Back at Peoria City Hall, Hart—a beekeeper for more than 20 years—quells some of the tension. “Beekeepers want gentle queens, just like our neighbors do. If a hive becomes a little more defensive or aggressive than we like, we can ‘re-queen’ it, and the hive becomes more docile again.”

Hot hives, or those which have become aggressive, can be corrected, Kilty explains. The source of a hive’s demeanor is its queen, so if you have a “queen with attitude,” you have two choices: splitting the hive into two separate sites, or re-queening it—replacing the queen with a new one. “First, you have to find her,” he chuckles. But once she’s gone, the new queen—orderable by priority mail from certified bee breeders like the Illinois Queen Initative—can be placed into the hive.

For two days, the new queen is caged in the depths of the teeming colony. During that time, she’ll secrete pheromones, capturing the workers and drones under her hormonal spell. Upon her release, the brood will heed her every command, swearing their life’s work to her. If you release her before her pheromones have permeated the hive, they’ll kill her, Kilty adds. “Bees are somewhat cannibalistic,” he explains. “The insect world’s a little different than ours!”

A Growing Movement
Peoria is far from the first municipality to permit urban beekeeping. St. Louis, Chicago and Springfield, among many others, have already legalized the practice, allowing hobby beekeepers a chance to pursue the pastime while effectively increasing the number of pollinators within city limits. It’s also prompted a new niche in the urban farming movement.

Chef Sean Patrick Curry’s on-site hives at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center provide fresh honey for the hotel restaurant’s menu, and encourage guest interaction through glass observation hives. Likewise, a beehive on the South Lawn of the White House—the first in presidential history—produces honey for White House recipes (and even to brew White House Honey Ale), and its bees pollinate the White House Kitchen Garden, expanded by the First Lady in her mission to promote healthy eating. Collectively, such efforts recognize and advocate for the crucial role of bees in the process of growing food.

Taking immediate effect with its passage on April 12th, the ordinance has opened the door for Peoria to follow suit. It’s an opportunity several city residents—and even companies—have been eagerly waiting to pursue, like Austin Engineering, which is considering a number of rooftop options in and around the downtown and Riverfront District. It’s sure to draw others in as well, Kilty suggests.

“Beekeeping kind of hooks you into it,” he says. “It’s amazing how even with all the issues and challenges… that bees face, they still survive. And they’re able to adapt.” a&s