Ask the Expert: A Beekeeper

Bees provide us with valuable benefits but are disappearing at alarming rates. To help us understand the world of bees, including why they’re so important, why they’re disappearing, and what we can do about it, we enlisted an expert beekeeper. This expert is Rachel Morrison, President of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association, student in the Master Beekeeper program at UC Davis, and founder of “The Beecharmers,” a company whose mission is to connect people with honey bees. Rachel got into beekeeping after teaching middle and high school science for several years. While teaching, she used bees as an example of different concepts in science and just became fascinated with them, including that they live in a colony that is like a tiny community with every bee having a job and a purpose. There is so much to learn about bees and we’re excited to capture and share some of Rachel’s knowledge in the following interview.

Can you elaborate on some of the benefits that we (humans) get from bees?

Humans benefit from bees because they pollinate our foods! Without bees, our plates would be bland and without many different foods that we are able to enjoy today. Bees even pollinate alfalfa that cattle graze on for nutrition. Honey bees provide pollination to large-scale farm operations all across the country such as for oranges, blueberries, and almonds. Of course, bees also provide honey that humans consume. The flavor of the honey depends on the type of floral sources that the bees visited to collect nectar and then turned into honey for their winter survival. Beekeepers usually leave plenty of honey in the hive for the bees and take the surplus to share with humans.

What are some of your favorite and/or surprising things about bees?

Honey bees are really amazing and do a lot of very surprising things. They communicate using a dance language called the waggle dance. They explain to the other foragers in the hive how to find the best floral sources of food by dancing in a figure eight on the frames inside the hive. The length of their run and how hard they are dancing tells the other bees how to navigate toward the flowers using the direction of the sun and the distance to fly until they find the food. The other bees watching the dance also taste and smell the bee so that they know the type of flower.

 Can you tell us a little bit about the different types of bees?

There are many types of native bees that don’t live in hives or colonies but are solitary and build varied types of nests. Some live underground while others burrow holes to create a nest area, among a few examples. There are actually 4,000 different native bee species in the US! Some examples are carpenter bees, digger bees, mason bees, bumble bees, and leafcutter bees. Native bees are just as important as honey bees and pollinate a lot of our food sources and other flowering plants. Most people don’t realize that honey bees aren’t even native to the United States but were brought here by European settlers.

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 What are some of the main reasons bees are disappearing?

Bees are declining for a few different reasons. One of the main reasons that honey bees die or their colonies fail is because of pesticide exposure. Often the pesticide doesn’t kill the bees immediately but leads to long-term pesticide exposure when they bring the pesticide-laden food sources like nectar and pollen back to their hives. This causes the bees to become confused, lowers their immune systems and makes it hard for them to do all of their jobs within the hive.

Another reason bees are disappearing is a pest called the varroa mite. The varroa mite spreads viruses and other diseases to bees when it attaches to them as larvae and then continues to live off of their bodies as adult bees. Beekeepers are constantly monitoring their hives for varroa mites and have to make decisions regarding how to treat them without leading to the varroa becoming resistant to the current treatment methods.

Starvation is yet another reason that bees might be dying. When the honey bees don’t have enough plants that are blooming or flowering in their area to collect pollen and nectar they are unable to sustain the hive. This can be due to the area around the bees being surrounding by farms growing only one type of crop (monocrop farming) or bees in an urban area that are surrounding by concrete and a lack of food sources.

Can you tell us some of the benefits of beekeeping as a hobby?

There are many benefits to beekeeping as a hobby. I think that beekeeping helps to create mindfulness. When I’m practicing beekeeping I have to pay very close attention to the sounds, smells, and movements of the bees. Another benefit is having a great source of pollination for your backyard garden! Honey bees are prolific pollinators and have a 3 – 5 square mile radius for gathering nectar and pollen.

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Do you have a few tips for someone thinking about getting into beekeeping?

I recommend that everyone thinking about getting into beekeeping do a lot of research and learning before they invest the money and time in bees and beekeeping equipment. Most areas have a beekeepers association that offers mentors, time and space to learn and share with other beekeepers and monthly meetings with expert guest speakers. Joining the local beekeepers association is a great way to continue learning and have a support system in the beekeeping journey. I also suggest that everyone considering becoming a beekeeper take some basic beekeeping classes or workshops. Many classes are even offered online. Take a few different classes with different instructors because there are many different methods or philosophies related to how to successfully keep bees. Last, remember that beekeeping takes practice and that it should be viewed as a process. Many beekeepers (even experts) lose their hives each year so it is perfectly okay to start over the next year trying some different methods to help the bees survive in your own backyard or apiary.

If someone can’t get into beekeeping but wants to help save the bees, do you have any advice on how to do so?

Plant forage for the bees! All types of bees need food sources and flowering plants are the best way to provide that for them. When planning your backyard or garden area think about planting items that have a long blooming season or plant seeds that bloom at different times throughout the year so that you’re providing food for the bees all year long. Also, avoid using all pesticides in your yard or garden. Pesticides are a huge problem for bees. Last, leave the weeds in your yard. Many flowering weeds such as dandelion are a great food source for bees and if you simply leave those to flower in your own yard you will be helping to save the bees.

Thanks to Rachel for her dedication to bees and taking the time to share her knowledge with us so we can also help keep them around. Interview by L. DeMates.

If you happen to live in the Sacramento area, The Beecharmers hosts backyard beekeeping workshops, apiary tours, and honey tastings, which provides a chance to be around bees and learn more about how they live within their hives and impact the world.

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