The buzz on beekeeping

Jun 18, 2014


This Western North Carolina-based bee belongs to "beek" Robin Stinkney.
Credit Gloria Good

  This week in Western North Carolina is the time for Pollination Celebration, a recognition of the process that helps plants get fertilized so they can reproduce.

Asheville, also known as the first Bee City USA, is at the forefront of the movement to help promote the health of bees and other pollinators.

“I started the Warren Wilson apiary three years ago, and I just graduated from Warren Wilson College,” says Cecile Parrish.

You can tell Parrish is obsessed with bees for a couple of reasons-- the way her face lights up when she talks about them, the way she loves talking shop with a visiting bee expert… and the bee-shaped tattoos she has, one of which is on her knee. (Bees knees, get it?)

“We have 10 healthy hives, eight of which I would feel comfortable saying are survivor stock bees now-- they’ve survived three to four winters. And we use them for research and pollination in our sustainable garden.”

Parrish even wrote her senior thesis about the bees, researching the Nocema virus, which could have something to do with the blight of the honeybee.

You’ve probably heard something about the “bee crisis” in the United States. Hives are dwindling fast, and that could have serious implications for much of our daily lives. The decrease in bee population was named CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.

Dr. Jeff Pettis leads the US Department of Agriculture’s bee research lab. His job is to determine some of the causes of CCD, and he’s here during the Pollination Celebration to promote bee health.

“We’ve been losing about 30 percent of our managed honeybee colonies over the past seven or eight years every winter, and then we lose some over the summer,” he says. “They go queenless, they die, or whatever reason. So some years it can be 30-50 percent of the bees within an operation would die out within an entire course of the year.”

The importance of wild bees is that they provide what Pettis calls “ecosystem services” --  they pollinate things like trees and other plants that make Western North Carolina-- and the United States -- such a biologically diverse environment.   

“For honeybees, it’s mostly about food supply for us, he says. “It’s about pollinating fruits, nuts, and vegetables, which is a third of our diet.

“So if we can’t keep honey bees or bumblebees alive to pollinate in an agricultural setting, our food supply would go down. Our diversity of food supply.”

While most people have heard about the about the decreasing bee population, there’s still a knowledge gap about what the implications of that really are.

When I ask Pettis about how he balances being effectively cautionary but not alarmist, he laughs.

“Very carefully. I testified at the House side of Congress [recently]. And they were like, 'Are we at a food crisis?' Well, no, we’re not quite at a food crisis, but if we don't pay attention and we can’t keep bees healthy, we will be at a food crisis. We won’t get things pollinated. So it’s a balancing act.”

Parrish says that at the Warren Wilson apiary, there’s at least 80,000 between the two biggest hives.

“The numbers, when you start doing the math, it’s pretty impressive,” Pettis says.

“But they act almost more like cells in a body,” Parrish says. “So we make a really big point in this apiary of looking at our hives as single organisms.

That’s when a bee starts to dive bomb the microphone, but Parrish stays focused.

“Because they’re a super organism," she says. "So each bee does her function for the betterment of the whole.”

That notion, of each tiny entity contributing to a bigger vision, is something that beekeepers, or beeks, for short-- find incredibly appealing, despite the countless times each of these people has gotten stung by bees.

“You don’t count the stings after a while," Pettis says "It comes from the territory. It’s part of the reward of getting to go into their life a little bit. Going tnto a hive of 40,000 flying things that could sting you… If they all came out and just attacked your head, you’d be dead.

"It’s actually… most people find it very Zen. Very rewarding, just to try to understand bee biology and work with them. It is a rewarding hobby in that way. Very rewarding."

Even Shawn Ditzler, a sophomore at Warren Wilson, says he’s lost count of the stings, and he’s only been on the bee crew since January.

But like Pettis and Parrish, he finds a certain zen in beekeeping.

He’s even embracing the vernacular. “I think I’m becoming a beek. I think I wouldn’t be too upset with that title,” he laughs.

The way Pettis looks at it, honey has been a part of human history since before the written word. And he knows that the beekeper type would always have been a little quirky.

“We used to move in clans and groups, you know, tribes, moving through the environment. So one guy is the alpha male and there’s all those other roles. So they get to the cliff and they see the hive up there, and they say, 'Hey, get Crazy John in the back. We’re gonna send Crazy John-- or Crazy Jane-- up the cliff. Where’s Crazy John? He’s gonna go up there."

Pettis will give a lecture, titled Give Bees a Chance - The Pollination Puzzle, Wednesday night at 7 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Asheville.

For more information about how to promote pollination in Western North Carolina, visit "Plants for Pollinators," a page by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.