February 20, 2011

What's the Buzz...Tell Me What's Happening

Well, in the ever increasing urban beekeeping world, a lot is happening.  I had a chance to learn from a panel of beekeepers at an event held at the Chicago Downtown Farmstand in the Loop last week.

"Buzz About Bees" was moderated by Judith Hines, the Director of Culinary Arts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.  Panelists included Michael Thompson, beekeeper for the city's eight hives; Julio Tuma, Beekeeping Program Coordinator at Garfield Park Conservatory; Aza Quinn-Brauner, beekeeping hobbyist; and Donna Oppolo, hobbyist turned mentor and founder of the only beekeeping group in the city - Pilsen Beekeepers Association.  Each panelist explained their role in Chicago's beekeeping community, and discussed the challenges that face urban beekeepers.

One challenge is space.  Finding a place to keep the hives can be a problem for city dwellers. Aza keeps his two hives at his mom's house which means he has a trip just to get there to check on them. This limits him to weekends and therefore lots of work. But his philosophy is it's better than disturbing them too often, which disrupts honey production, so he let's nature do her thing. Donna went from one hive to five, utilizing her landlord's property and the roof of a bar.  Now she has some of her hives at the growing station at Pilsen's community garden.  Michael is also a co-founder of the Chicago Honey Co-op on the west side where they have 60-80 hives, and offer beekeeping workshops.

Another challenge is getting the honeybees through Chicago winters.  Ideally you want to keep honey at the top of the hive so they will come up for the heat.  Whiles the bees do adapt to the cold, shelter from wind is advised.  Hives can also be moved to an unheated shed.  (If you need to move hives for any reason, winter or early spring is the best time because they are lighter).  Honeybees won't fly if it's freezing and they need to fly to stay alive.  Fact is, they need to relieve themselves and will only do that outside the hive. 

Also, as you may have heard, there is a widespread occurrence of honeybees disappearing.  Many beekeepers find that the adults are suddenly and inexplicably gone. Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to this mysterious problem. But it has not been classified as a disease, and no specific cause has been determined.  I've heard theories from global warming to pesticides.  Julio feels that it is a combination of stress factors, especially from their industrial use. 

Commercial pollination is a business that many of us may not be aware of. Some people with a large number of hives will ship their bees to whichever parts of the country need them, and when they need them, to pollinate for our food supply. There are not enough local pollinators in these areas. Approximately one-third of what we eat comes from honeybees' efforts. Migratory honeybees are sent to help produce almonds in California, for example.

The travel, the contact with imported bees carrying parasitic mites, and the monoculture diet all contribute to weakening the honeybee's immune system. Also, university studies have found bacteria and viruses in bees.  It has become difficult to find queen bees and many are imported from hot climates, so they often do not survive our cold.  Plus the more contact, the more disease is spread. 

It is still a mystery.  But an ever increasing problem.  Starting in 2006 people started to notice higher than usual losses.  Instead of 15-20%, it was 50-90%.  We currently have about a one-third loss nationally and this is occurring in Africa, Australia, and South America as well.  Garfield Park lost 80% of their honeybees last year.

The good news is that more and more people are choosing to keep bees, including city gardeners, urban homesteaders, and nature lovers. Whether in their backyards or in community areas or on a rooftop, their urban bees add to the growing need for more pollinators, and may just be the answer to keeping bees in our future.  And as a result, a beekeeping community has developed to offer support and education on the methods, reasons, and rewards associated with keeping honeybees.  Fresh, local honey is of course one of the big benefits!

All the groups can be found on facebook.  Also, you can contact Donna at:  pilsenbeekeepers@gmail.com

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