We can live off the land — until we can't. Climate change is fundamentally changing the way farmers produce food, right down to the soil itself.
In 2006, honeybees made headlines as large numbers of healthy colonies were suddenly abandoned by their inhabitants. Scientists call this “colony collapse disorder,” and it’s a phenomenon that they still haven’t been able to explain. Since then, the University of Maryland and its research partners have conducted annual surveys of bee populations across the United States to keep track of losses. They’ve used that data to develop guidelines for protecting bees and other pollinators.
The latest survey shows a 38% loss of U.S. bee colonies last winter, the highest rate ever recorded since the research began 13 years ago. And over the past year, nearly 41% of commercial colonies have failed.
These record losses are taking place as urban and backyard beekeeping continue to grow in popularity, especially in our region.
So what is threatening the bees? What does is mean for local beekeepers? And what would a world without commercial beekeepers and hardworking bees mean for the rest of us?
Produced by Monna Kashfi
How Do You Check Bees For Mites?
What’s a powdered sugar shake? And why would you douse bees in alcohol?
Check out this video for two sampling methods recommended by the experts at the University of Maryland’s Bee Lab for checking bee colonies for varroa mites — one of the main threats to the health and survival of bee colonies in recent years.
Video courtesy of The Honey Bee Health Coalition.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. A new annual survey released by the University of Maryland last week shows that 38 percent of the bee colonies in the United States perished last winter. That's the highest rate of loss since the survey began 13 years ago. And over the past year, 41 percent of commercial colonies across the country have failed. So, what is threatening the bees, and what does it mean for local bee keepers and the rest of us who enjoy the fruits of their labors? Joining me in studio is Mark Dykes. He is the coordinator of the University of Maryland's Bee Squad. Mark Dykes, thank you for joining us.
MARK DYKESThank you very much for having us.
NNAMDIUniversity of Maryland established its honeybee lab about 13 years ago. It's created several research partnerships. Why did the university decide to commit these kinds of resources to studying honeybees?
DYKESMost of this dates back to sounds like Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp's hiring at the university. He's been very big with working with both commercial and the federal government on researching the reasons for colony loss.
NNAMDIAnd, researching this, we came across the phrase "colony collapse disorder." What is colony collapse disorder?
DYKESSo, colony collapse disorder -- or CCD, which it's often referred to -- is a condition of the hive where a majority of the bees just disappear from the hive, and it causes the hive to crash. It was a big issue back in about 2006 and '07 with commercial operations. Since that time, we haven't seen it nearly as much. It's something that is not as researched as it used to be. It's become more of a catch-all phrase. We still don't know the exact reason for it. Any more, we consider it more of a multi-factorial disorder, the decline in the bee populations.
NNAMDISo, we cannot identify colony collapse disorder as the main source of bee colonies dying at this point.
DYKESThat's correct. We generally refer to the main source for the colonies dying off as the four Ps, which is parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.
NNAMDITell us about the annual survey. What does it study, and what were this year's findings?
DYKESSure. So, this year, and every year, we will send out a survey to beekeepers all across the nation, both commercial and small scale. And we ask for various different information from them, predominantly their annual loss rate, their summer loss rate and their winter loss rate. And what we're looking for from that is to know, you know, the number of colonies that they survived for the year, how many they lost this past year. Our annual loss rate was actually up to 40.7 percent, which is up a little bit from previous average years, which was 38.7 percent, is the average loss. The winter losses were significantly higher at 37 percent loss, which was about 8.9 percent above previous years. So, that's something to be concerned.
NNAMDIWhy should we be concerned about honeybees dying off in record numbers?
DYKESThe European honeybee, which is the honeybee that we study, is the biggest pollinator of crops in America. And so, without the honeybees, a lot of the crops that we've come to rely on couldn't be produced as well. We have native pollinators that can take up some of the slack, but considering there's over two million colonies in the United States and about 1.5 million of those are for pollination, that's a lot of numbers to make up. And native bees just can't do that.
NNAMDIAre these losses significant enough to be a threat to the species? Are honeybees endangered?
DYKESNo, honeybees are not endangered. There's been a lot of talk in the media about the bee-pocalypse, that type of thing. We're not to that point. The biggest issue that we're facing with these high loss numbers is to beekeepers themselves. Just like farming, you know, beekeeping operations, a lot of them are small scale, passed on from generation to generation. With losses this high, at some point, we hit a tipping point -- and I don't think we're quite there yet -- to where people will stop being commercial beekeepers. And that's going to be a big issue for modern agriculture.
NNAMDISo, you figured out that we just like words that end in pocalypse. (laugh)
NNAMDIYes, we in the media, that is. Joining us in studio is Toni Burnham. Toni Burnham is president of the DC Beekeepers' Alliance. Toni, thank you for joining us.
TONI BURNHAMThank you for inviting us.
NNAMDIUrban beekeeping has become quite trendy in recent years. What do you think has caused this popularity?
BURNHAMWell, I'd like to say that once you meet a bee, you love a bee. But I would say that a lot of folks are feeling a lot more connected with environmental issues, in general. And often, in organic lifestyle, wanting to know where their food comes from, wanting to have effective urban gardens.
NNAMDIHow many bee colonies do we have in the District?
BURNHAMSo, I know the District's bee regulator, and among the beekeeping community, we speculate on this. I did ask our regulator. There are nearly 500 hives registered in the District of Columbia. And there are probably somewhere around 400 of those active at any given time.
NNAMDIMark, how many colonies in Maryland?
DYKESMaryland has about 14,000 registered colonies. And then down in Virginia, they estimate to have about 35,000 registered colonies.
NNAMDIWhy do you think urban and backyard beekeeping has become so popular?
DYKESI think Toni hit it on the head. I think a lot of it has to do with people getting interested in agriculture again, getting interested in the agrarian sciences. Beekeeping is a fascinating thing to do. Even if you have a very small plot of land, or just a rooftop, you can do it.
NNAMDITell us about in Virginia, how many...
DYKESSure. So, in Virginia, they have an estimate of about 35,000 hives, with about 4,000 beekeepers total. They're not required to register down there, so I don't have exact numbers, but that's an estimate that the state (word?) gave me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Jan Day. Jan Day is a beekeeper and owner of Second Story Honey. Jan, thank you for joining us.
JAN DAYThank you.
NNAMDIWhat attracted you to this hobby. and how did you come to be known as "The Bee Lady"?
DAYSo, I was originally a beer brewer, and I wanted to make mead, which is a honey wine. And so as I was shopping for ingredients, I thought, gosh, honey's expensive. I bet if I kept my own bees, I could get the honey for free, which, of course, is a huge joke, because now I've made (laugh) the most expensive mead one can imagine. Don't tell my husband.
NNAMDI(laugh) Tony, beekeepers in the District are required to register with the city. Why?
BURNHAMThere are a couple different really good reasons. I'd like to talk about beekeepers proving that they're part of the community, part of the DNA of the community, not sort of eccentric, potentially dangerous folks. I think that the gold standard for being a beekeeper in the District is getting your aviary registered, taking a course, a good more than eight-hour course, and being a member of a local beekeeping community, so you understand what best practices are.
BURNHAMI also believe that more services are coming online, letting us know when pesticides are being applied in our area, or letting us know if there's a disease outbreak in our area. Thus far, in DC, we haven't had an outbreak of serious disease, but no bee is an island in Washington, DC. And we need to know where each other's hives are.
NNAMDIMark, is registration required in Maryland, as well, or are there different rules?
DYKESIt's a little different rules there, but they do require them to register, I believe.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones, here now is Calvert in Virginia. Calvert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CALVERTHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. I'm a landowner out in Weisburg, near (unintelligible). I've got about 10 acres of land, and my husband and I have been talking at length about trying to get rid of a lot of our lawn and, you know, plant more trees, that kind of thing. We were just looking into, I don't know, like how to plant wildflowers and things that would naturally support bees. I don't know if I'm quite ready to go the beehive route, but -- so for someone like me wanting to end up, like, a net positive on the planet, what would be a couple of easy quick things that we could do to our property to put us on that path?
BURNHAMFirst of all, thank you. That's a wonderful choice to make. There is a rock star native bee scientist at Patuxent Wildlife Reserve named Sam Droege, who actually says, you know, save a bee, kill a tree, which is (laugh) meant as a joke. But what he's saying is that that area that you have that's lawn right now, you could create wildflower meadow, and you could actually buy mixes that are locally appropriate. That's extremely important, to find mixes that are right for where you live and that do not include invasive plants. I often say that the bees need more friends than keepers, and you're squaring up to be one of those, and I'm really grateful.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Calvert. You, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Are you a gardener? What are you doing to help the honeybees and other pollinators? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. You can send us a Tweet @kojoshow. Jan Day, how hard it is to start as a beekeeper? What are the basics you need to consider?
DAYIt's not hard. I'll start with that. I think the first thing that folks who are interested in beekeeping should do is get an education. That can be joining a local club, or often university extension offices have courses. They're generally eight to 16 hours, or weeks, long. And it'll give you the foundation that you need to get started in terms of understanding bee biology, the equipment you'll need, how best to site your hive and what do your bees need to survive. So that when you're ready to take that next step, you're connected to hopefully a club, where you have a mentor. You have a foundational understanding of what you need. And you've got the right foundation for success.
NNAMDIHow expensive a hobby is it? Give us an idea of the startup costs, and then what you need to spend on each hive to keep it going.
DAYSure. So, beekeeping is the kind of hobby that can be as expensive as you want it to be, but it doesn't have to be. Your startup costs for a given hive would be in the order of five to $600. And then your ongoing costs for maintaining each hive could run $50 to $100 a year.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Here now is Brian, in Silver Spring. Brian, your turn.
BRIANHi. Yeah, I was calling, I set up a wildflower garden in my yard, and I've done a pretty good job of attracting a lot of native bees, like mason bees and honeybees -- or, I'm sorry, mason bees and bumblebees. But I wanted to know a bit more about if there's anything I can do short of setting up a hive for honeybees to help them or attract more of them in my area.
DYKESSo, I think one of the best things you can do is encourage other people to do exactly what you're doing. Bees need a lot more what we call good forage, you know, wildflower patches. You know, even if they're just, you know, very small, side-of-the-road patches. Supporting local parks that do the same. Encouraging local councilmembers to plant wildflower mixes over lawns is a great way to do it.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much, Brian, and good luck to you. Before we go to break, Jan Day, how quickly can one expect to get honey from the hives, and how much honey are we talking about, exactly?
DAYSo, usually, it takes at least a year for a hive to become established, so that they have enough resources for themselves. And so a beekeeper would expect to get a harvest in their second year. If their hive is doing well, then a 30-pound harvest would be a nice payback. If it's doing really well, you may expect 60 to 100 pounds per hive.
NNAMDIWhoa. With that, we're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about honeybees, why they're dying in record numbers, and what's to be done about that. Mark Dykes is the coordinator of the University of Maryland's Bee Squad. Toni Burnham is president of the DC Beekeeper's Alliance, and Jan Day is a beekeeper and owner of Second Story Honey. Toni, where do most people keep hives, and are there hives in any public places in the city?
BURNHAMThere are hives in many public places in the city. I mentioned during the break that the White House has a single beehive with extraordinary harvest. But they are present in some community gardens in Washington and hotel roofs. And we also -- one of the signature locations for beehives in DC, many people have them on roofs, roofs of houses, roofs of businesses, garage roofs. We also have bees at churches, bees at monasteries and bees at cemeteries.
NNAMDIIs the DC region a particularly good environment for honeybees?
BURNHAMIn April through early June, it is, but it actually is a very up and down region for keeping bees. One of the reasons why we encourage folks to get in contact with experienced local beekeepers is the changes in the seasons can be abrupt here, and you need to adjust your management to keep your bees alive during a time when suddenly all the nectar disappears.
NNAMDIHere now is Ben in Charles Town, West Virginia. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENHey, Kojo, thanks for having me. So, I used to be a beekeeper, and I know starting out, there were a variety of strains of honeybees to choose from. And I was wondering if recently, there have been any developments with some of the hybrid strains that might be more resistant to some of the factors that can cause colony collapse.
DYKESSure. So, there's definitely been a lot of research done into different lines of queens. Predominantly, they focus on varroa mite resistance, different grooming behaviors that allow the bees to attack the mites, something that they are not naturally predisposed to do. They also have what they call hygienic lines, which help reduce other diseases in the hive. So, that is definitely a big part of research. Unfortunately, honeybee breeding is very difficult, and so these type of advancements can take a long time to hit the market.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned mites, and thank you very much for your call, Ben. Because what are the main threats to bees right now?
DYKESSo, arguably, one of the main threats is the varroa mite, which is a mite that jumped a host from the Asian honeybee, which is a different species, to the European honeybee. If you can imagine something about the size of a dinner plate crawling around on your body, eating your fat -- which, you know, in my case, I would love for that, because it would be a great way to lose weight (laugh) But, unfortunately, with bees, the fat bodies store and do a lot of functions that is necessary for survival.
NNAMDIHow do beekeepers test for mites?
DYKESSure. There's a method called the shake method, which generally you can use either powdered sugar or alcohol. Obviously, alcohol is a destructive sampling. But powdered sugar, you just coat the bees in powdered sugar. You'll put them into a mason jar first. You put a number 8 mesh screen on top. You pour the powdered sugar in, shake it, get them nice and coated, and then turn it upside down, just like a salt and pepper shaker, onto a white piece of paper. The mites will start to fall off the bees, and it looks like little red dots on a piece of paper. And that's a way to tell.
NNAMDIYou can see that process at our website, kojoshow.org, just exactly how the sugar works, in that case. How hard is it to treat a colony for mites?
DYKESIt can be very difficult, at times. We don't have a ton of mitesides available on the market. We have quite a few, but most of them are dependent on temperature. Some you cannot use when you have honey supers on. And so there's quite a few different issues we're treating. The Honeybee Health Coalition -- which is a coalition that was developed to help stop losses in honeybees -- actually has an online tool that you can use to determine what treatment is best for time of year and the condition of your hive.
NNAMDIAre these threats more prevalent in urban areas?
DYKESSort of. That's actually kind of a -- in large agriculture areas, where there's a lot of beekeepers, it can be an issue, and in urban areas, as well. And I think Toni sees a little bit of that here.
BURNHAMYeah, we've had some -- there's a study out, David Tarpy's lab in North Carolina in 2016, that indicated that the immune systems of urban honeybees were the equal of bees in other locations, rural and suburban, meaning there's nothing wrong with keeping a bee in the city. But the pathogen pressure is intense. Essentially, because we are so close together, something that is in one colony will get into another colony, whether it is a viral disease or a pest. That's one of the reasons why we advocate a really high bar for mite testing and treatment in DC, and that folks have to actually think about their neighbor and think about their neighboring beehive, not just their own goals.
NNAMDIHere is Darren in Annandale. Darren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARRENYeah, hi. My question is regarding the mosquito and tick spraying companies (unintelligible) yard of mosquitoes and ticks. I've been living in my house for almost 20 years. It's an older neighborhood. We have all kinds of bees in the neighborhood, but since a few of my neighbors have started up with these companies that spray for mosquitoes and ticks, I have not seen one honeybee come through my yard. I see occasional bumblebees, of course butterflies. But they say that they target only mosquitoes and ticks, but I've seen them spray my neighbors yard.
DARRENThey come through with a modified leaf blower and spray poison in the air, up in the trees, in the flowers (unintelligible). And they say that they target mosquitoes and ticks. But how is that possible to spray poison that only kills mosquitoes and ticks, and not honeybees?
NNAMDIMark Dykes, a new law went into effect in Maryland last year that banned a certain class of pesticides that are harmful to bees. Will that make a major difference, and can you respond to Darren?
DYKESSo, as far as the caller is concerned, the method of application is meant to minimize the effect on honeybees. However, just like with any poison that is sprayed, it has unintended consequences, where it can. And so that is one of the issues that you may have. One thing you can also do is work with your neighbors and the surrounding community to reduce the need for spraying, going after water sources that are stagnant, that type of thing.
DYKESAs far as the law that was passed in Maryland, that was banning the neonicotinoid pesticides for application by homeowners. It doesn't outlaw the pesticides altogether for commercial applicators or those with the proper licensing. And so that's probably going to help some. It definitely will take it out of the hands of people that may not be trained in the use of it. With any pest application, we do always recommend reading the label and following that. It is truly the law, the label is, and so you're required to follow it.
DYKESBut also education. You know, many commercial beekeepers and farmers have a very good repertoire now. And so they're able to tell them, you know, when it's best to spray, to avoid contact with the bees.
NNAMDIHere's Era in Bethesda, Maryland. Era, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERAHi, Kojo and guests. I'm actually a member of the DC Beekeepers. I can't speak highly enough about their mentorship. I'm very grateful to them. But you asked earlier about people who taste honey. And the fun thing about being a beekeeper and traveling is trying honey in different locales. My partner and I were actually on the Bourbon Trail last year when I picked up a small bottle of honey from a local distillery. And when I cracked it open, I was disappointed to find that it tasted just like corn syrup. And my first thought was, it was one of these modified, you know, fake honeys that are on the market, until I realized that they forage primarily in cornfields. (laugh) So, actually, the taste of honey varies wildly, not just locally. but -- I mean, not just nationally. but locally, as well.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that. Toni Burnham, how would you describe the flavor of local honey here in DC? As she pointed out, it can vary. Can the honey from hives in one neighborhood to the next differ in flavor?
BURNHAMAbsolutely. At the DC State Fair last fall, we had 27 entries from beekeepers in Washington, DC. And it was a rainbow of colors, from very narrowly water white, to a very dark maple syrup almost color. And bees are very economic creatures. They go to the nearest best source until it is exhausted. In DC, that source is usually trees. And those of you who haven't tried DC honey, I am so sorry. (laugh) It is just that good. It is wonderful, light or dark. And you should seek some out.
NNAMDIJan Day, if I find out my neighbor's going to set up hives on their property, what can I expect? Should I be concerned about being swarmed by bees walking from my car to my front door every day?
DAYNo. I think that, first of all, you should be excited, because that means you have someone in your neighborhood who has a honey source that you may be able to tap into, as Toni mentioned. And I know, from my own experience, when I first talked to my neighbors about, hey, I'm thinking of getting a hive and setting it up next year, I was immediately flooded with questions all about bees. And so now I'm known by all the neighborhood kids as The Bee Lady. (laugh) which is awesome. But in terms of what you can expect, I think just general great neighborliness from your beekeeper.
NNAMDIYeah, I think you might have said earlier, bees have no reason to be around people. (laugh) Here is Ellen in Burke, Virginia. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLENHello. Thank you very much for taking my call. I live in Burke, Virginia. I have an acre of land. The back half acre is under the high tension power lines. It's very open. I have a 30-foot by 12-foot garden where I grow vegetables and flowers. And we have two hives right now. We were up to four, but have lost them. And this winter, we lost all of our bees due to the bee mite. But we did harvest 60 pounds of honey, anyway. And then, in past years, we have -- we've been doing this since 2014. In past years, we have harvested up to 240 pounds of honey.
NNAMDIWow. Okay. And sorry about what happened this past year. Keep plugging away. Thank you very much for your call.
ELLENOh, yeah. Oh no, we love our bees. We love our bees. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIDonna emails: I'm very lucky to live close to Bethesda Co-Op. I can buy local honey there and have the choice of wildflower, orange blossom and others. How is honey identified by blossoms? How do you know that the honey is made from a particular flower?
DAYSo, there are a couple of different ways that you can do this. I suppose the gold standard is a pollen count, and actually looking at things under the microscope, which, of course, few of us will ever try.
DAYAs beekeepers, when we're looking to create what's called a varietal honey, an orange blossom, a lavender, buckwheat, we would be putting the honey -- making the honey available to the bees to store it in that very short period of time those flowers are blooming. And then we would take the honey off, so we know it's all that one flower.
NNAMDIAfraid that's about all the time we have. The Virginia Department of Agriculture is giving away free hives again this year. The application period opens up on July 1st, but the guidelines are already available on their website. Applications are reviewed and granted as they come in. And, last year, they ran out of hives within the first few days of the application period. It's apparently a very popular giveaway.
NNAMDIAnd Ann Tweets: Montgomery County Beekeepers Association has a program where you can lend your yard to beekeepers. We lent our yard and got two beehives this year. It's really neat to watch the hive, and our flowers and veggies are thriving. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Mark Dykes is coordinator of the University of Maryland's Bee Squad. Toni Burnham is president of the DC Beekeepers Alliance. And Jan Day is a beekeeper and owner of Second Story Honey. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the health of honeybees was produced by Monna Kashfi. Our update on this year's 4th of July celebrations in the District produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, the LGBTQ communities in the region are being targeted for violence. We explore what's going on and how communities and police are responding. And we'll have a visit from NPR pop culture correspondent and host of the happy hour podcast Linda Holmes. I'll ask her about her new novel, titled "Evvie Drake Starts Over." That all starts at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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