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  • Writer's pictureSara

UNITED STATES: Pacific Northwest Bee Lessons

Updated: Feb 12


Carolyn Breece slides me a mason jar of her own honey when we meet for tea on a rainy April morning in Corvallis, Oregon. In addition to managing Oregon State University’s apiary of 60 hives, she has her own apiary for making her “Honey, I Love You” brand of wildflower honey. The jar is warm from a water bath on the stove to soften it, and I open the lid and immediately slide my finger across the top sheen of beautiful golden honey. It’s a warmth that counteracts the cold outside. This is bad weather for bees, but good for catching up in Carolyn’s office at the Oregon State University bee lab, where she’s supported bee research for nearly 13 years and runs the courses for the Master beekeeper certification program. Blueberry blossoms are happening across the state, and she’s just back from working with a grad student’s research on commercial beekeeping across the blueberry fields on yesterday’s sunny day. Today’s rainy one is better for meeting than for visiting hives.

Carolyn teaches the bee courses I took as a primer of my own beekeeping education. With Apis mellifera honeybees present in both the US and Rwanda, I assumed the lessons would transfer across geography, based solely on bee biology. Offering a stepped program to move from apprentice, to journey-er, to master beekeeper, I enrolled in pre-recorded on-line classes. I was learning from Carolyn at my own pace from my laptop in Rwanda.

The courses as OSU were structured to get me started with bees in the prevailing Pacific Northwest fashion – assembling Langstroth hives, selecting a package of bees to shake into the hive, feeding sugar syrup and pollen patties to get them going, and being ever-mindful of varroa destructor mites that kill hives all across the US. What these classes impressed upon me most was how mainstream beekeeping is done in the US and how much bees are struggling for health and survival. Between mite infestations, small hive beetle, wax moth, long winters without forage, and even a mouse that may stow-away in a hive for some winter warmth, the bees are on-guard for minute changes that can seriously affect the survival of the colony. The courses share treatment options and synthetic food options, and lots of practices that feel so medicalized and industrialized. Carolyn sympathizes with me I as express how awkward it feels to medicate the hives for varroa mites. “When I started beekeeping I didn’t want to do it either. You don’t want to put a block of acid on the top of your hive frames but then there’s really not much you can do.” As a researcher and a lover of bees, I believe that she’s looked for a dozen of other options to find the best ways to keep her hives healthy.

Yet, for beekeepers all around the US, the management practices that are being used aren’t keeping up with the environmental stresses on the hives – and perhaps are even contributing to the stresses. Spring survival rates numbers are reported from beekeepers across the US, pegging hive losses between 21-52% at various states across the US last year. Some beekeepers in Ontario, Canada report in that 2022 is the worst loss season on record with between 60-95% losses, likely due to weakened hives from varroa mites, poor diets with too little diversity of flower foods, pesticide exposure, and poor hive management from well-meaning beekeepers. The colony collapse disorder of the early 2000s has receded, but every year, we are reaching record numbers of bee losses as our practices of farming, development, and land use strip away resources for bees and native plants.

The OSU courses are geared to folks like me who are getting started with bees – hoping to take care of bees, make some honey for Christmas presents, know how to use an EpiPen for anaphylaxis allergic reactions, and generally do as best as possible to support hived colonies across cold wet winters and keep the bees alive. Carolyn’s enthusiasm for honey bees comes through on all 9 recorded lessons she teaches, reviewing buying nucs, or managing winter hive inspections, or treating for mites. While many approaches won’t transfer to my situation in Rwanda, Carolyn's teaching has been the base of my understanding, and and her incredible support in pairing me with bee researchers and beekeepers around the globe has been phenomenal in helping me explore other approaches.

Meeting for the first time in person feels like the start of a long sweet bee friendship. Having the chance to share my own excitement feels with her feels like I’m finally reciprocating in our relationship. I hand her a jar of smokey Rwandan honey, too.

Talking with Carolyn in her bright yellow rain coat, a thermos of hot water between us, and cold rain pooling into mud at the base of her lab stairs, it feels like the weather will never release us from its grip into spring. When temperatures are below 55 degrees, it’s too cold for the bees to leave their nests, as they need to maintain a 95-degree cluster in the hive center, around the queen and the other sisters. The bees have been clustered like this since winter, and have likely eaten through their honey storage. Beekeepers are pouring in sugar water to keep the energy up, and stacking on peanut-butter looking pollen patties in the hive as the wet blossoms outside blow away in the wind. The cold rain washes away the protein-rich pollen the bees rely on to grow the next generation. When will bees finally have the chance to forage and for new queens to mate?

We gather our courage and our layers to walk in the rain through a diversity of cool hives in the OSU apiary in coldest May on record for the Pacific Northwest. As we look at these constructed hives of various shapes and innovations to improve the management condition of hived bees, I wonder if honeybees were ever meant to even be here.

In 2014, researchers verified that “honey bees seem to be derived from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees that arrived from Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa.”[1] Honey bees adapted to these varied environments as they migrated, and the processes of adaption of bee biology might be a clue to how honey bees could adapt again to deal with the risks of climate change, pests, and disease. Beekeepers balance keeping their personal colonies alive through environmental stressors, but also allowing those stressors to trigger the right natural evolutions/adaptations required for bees’ longer term collective survival. The Apis mellifera honeybees of North America are not native to this land, and they were introduced by European colonists in the 1622s to Virginia, where I was raised. From Virginia, it took more than 200 years for honey bees to swarm and migrate as far West as modern-day Nevada. And in the 1850’s honeybees were transported by humans to California by botanist C. A. Shelton for use in farming and pollination[2]. So all that California plenty – like almonds, avocados, artichokes – are resultant from the work of honey bee immigrants from Europe.

Prior, the Native peoples of Turtle Island recognized solitary bees, bumblebees, mason bees, as the native bees of North America. When food and resources are plentiful, native and imported bees can co-exist, but when pollen and nectar resources are scarce – like in this windy rainy season or in a drought - there’s a risk of imported bees edging out the native species to the detriment of all.

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