Bees are happily buzzing on the roof of Whole Foods in Downtown Boise — a lot of them. A hundred-thousand or so, working away in four hives installed June 20.
Alika Hall has wanted bees on the roof for several years, both to raise public awareness of the bees’ plight and provide an urban center for the bees to help do what they do best: pollinate.
“I’m a gardener, I’m out in my yard all the time,” says Hall, the Boise Whole Foods store receiver and Green Mission representative. “Over the last 10 years alone you can definitely see a decrease in bees around here, for sure.”
It’s no secret that honeybees are in in crisis. The Whole Foods hives join a small but growing effort trying to help in urban Boise, such as the apiary on the BSU campus and the hives at the Boise Urban Garden School.
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“Bees are having a hard time,” says Ian Robertson, professor of biological sciences at Boise State. Bee numbers have declined as much as 50 percent nationwide over the past few winters, and the reasons for that decline are not well understood.
“Knowing that,” says Hall, “that was the premise behind this whole thought.” Sustainability and environmental impact is one of Whole Foods’ core values and something Hall thinks about a lot. As an added benefit, the hives will provide more than 100 pounds of honey annually for the store to use, though exactly how is still being decided.
PLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE
The continuing decline in honeybee numbers nationally is a complex problem, says Robertson. In the spring, beekeepers are finding a large percentage of hives abandoned, full of food but devoid of workers, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.
One cause: Microscopic tracheal mites that infect the breathing tubes of bees, reducing their air flow, making them less efficient workers. Larger varroa mites feed off adult bees and their young, causing deformities and weakness; they can quickly decimate a colony. Small hive beetles also can infest a colony, destroying the structure of the hive itself and spoiling the honey.
Pesticides are another factor, particularly a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. They are chemically like nicotine and can interfere with the bees’ immune systems and their ability to navigate.
Bee viruses and other pathogens can be spread among hives, some carried by mites. These viruses can paralyze bees, deform their wings or directly attack their young. Highly contagious funguses can wreak havoc on the digestive systems of bees, greatly reducing their lifespan and activity.
Changes in local climate can affect the bees as well. Increasing temperatures can keep pathogens and pests alive longer as the winters become milder. An early spring means that some of the flowers bees rely upon for food have already bloomed when the bees emerge after winter.
Urban growth and development directly affect bees and other pollinators such as beetles and butterflies as wild flowers give way to manicured lawns. “In our area, we are just losing a lot of native wildflowers,” says Robertson.
One thing that is not clear, says Robertson, is how these stresses interact. Scientists are trying to unravel the complex web of threats to bee populations. Do the mites appear when the bees are weakened by pathogens, for instance, or do the mites come first, bringing the pathogens?
“There’s never a silver bullet for an answer,” says Robertson.
Honeybees, however, are apparently being hit the hardest.
ADVENTURES IN ROOFTOP BEEKEEPING
Patti Matthews and her husband Seth own Matthews Family Farms in rural Weiser. Their small farm is home cattle, pigs, lamb and other animals — and tens of millions of bees in 600 beehives.
Patti Matthews visited Whole Foods weekly to deliver lamb, well before Hall learned that she was a beekeeper. Now she provides Whole Foods with rooftop bees, too. “It worked so seamlessly, I wish I would have done it a lot earlier,” says Hall.
Beekeeping is work. People don’t realize that the honeybee is a domesticated animal. To survive, bees require care and maintenance. Non-commercial beekeepers mean well, but are often not aware of the steps needed to successfully keep a hive.
“The back-yard beekeeper, generally, is the person that wants to save the bees and do everything as naturally as possible, not use any chemicals, don’t put anything on the bees, just let them be happy little bees all by themselves,” she says. “They’re not happy little bees by themselves…. They die.”
“One of the things you should do as a responsible beekeeper is to have them on a good health program,” she says. This involves checking on the hives once a week and observing the laying patterns of the queen.
Matthews demonstrated the requisite TLC while checking on the health of the Whole Foods hives last week. “In a perfect world, what you want to see is exactly what we see here … honey all around the outside and brood in the middle.” This means that the baby bees have ample access to food. Deviation from this pattern generally means that something is wrong, such as an old or sick queen.
Recent studies have shown that one of the primary influences in the spread of mites is the interaction of small non-maintained bee populations intermingling with commercial apiaries. To combat this, early detection and mitigation of mites is important.
Matthews is quick to point out this doesn’t mean having to use nasty chemicals. “It’s not like we’re putting really horrible things on our bees,” she says. Oxalic acid, found naturally in plants and vegetables, can fight the varroa mites. Formic acid, another substance which occurs naturally in honey, is one of the few treatments that can kill the mites within the sealed cells of the honeycomb.
Another tip Matthews offers is to melt down the hive frames every five or six years to remove chemicals that might build up in the wax. “We have to keep (the bees) healthy because they can’t fight off the stuff that’s out there.”
WHAT CAN IDAHOANS DO?
Short of maintaining your own hive, Matthews says, planting flowers, particularly native wildflowers, is the best thing a person can do to help bees. To produce a single pound of honey, a bee colony must visit 2 million flowers and collectively fly more than 50,000 miles, the equivalent of twice around the Earth. Giving them ample flowers nearby ensures that they have enough food to maintain this grueling schedule.
Reducing pesticide use can also help bees. People can use a lot of chemicals to maintain a modern yard in Idaho’s high desert, and these can hurt bees and other pollinators such as butterflies and beetles.
Both Matthews and Hall are excited to get to help raise public awareness about the problems bees are facing. Bees “are absolutely amazing,” says Matthews.
“And pollination is good for everyone,” says Hall.
LEARN MORE ABOUT BEES IN BOISE
For more information about getting into beekeeping, visit scientificbeekeeping.com
For more information about local plants and how they relate to bees, visit the Foothills Learning Center, https://bee.cityofboise.org/visit/foothills-learning-center, the Boise Urban Garden Center, https://www.boiseurbangardenschool.org, and the Idaho Botanical Garden, http://idahobotanicalgarden.org