Raise your own bees through a University of Minnesota program

  • Article by: STEVE HOFFMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2013 - 7:14 AM

Through a University of Minnesota program, novice beekeepers receive training and education – and, not so incidentally, improve conditions for the health of bees nationwide.

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Becky Masterman looks as if she’s contemplating a work of art.

She holds a rectangular wooden frame by two corners and scans it, her head nodding.

“Yes,” she says. “Beautiful.” She turns the frame to look at the other side, and nods some more.

“Now, see this?” she asks, and holds her small masterpiece out to us.

It is, in its way, a work of art, if an unnerving one. Both sides of the frame seethe with a living carpet of bees, shimmering loudly over a perfect hexagonal grid of waxy comb. The sound they make, that familiar, insistent droning thrum, is straight out of my childhood nightmares.

“They’re so cute!” says my daughter. She leans in, plump, fuzzy projectiles swooping around her head, and snaps a photo to send to her high school friends.

We’re over in the sunniest corner of our shady back yard, and there are 7,505 of us, give or take — Masterman, our family of four, and 7,500 of the newest members of the family, a colony of “Minnesota Hygienic” honeybees, bred for disease resistance in the bee lab of the University of Minnesota Entomology Department (and later turned over to commercial breeders to sell to the public). They were delivered by Masterman, of the Bee Squad, a little over a week ago. We’ve given the bees a week to get their bearings, so this is our first view of our little darlings. The news so far is good.

Masterman directs our attention to an upper corner of the frame she’s holding, where a sugary crust caps several dozen of the hexagonal cells.

“That’s honey,” she tells us through the netting of her mesh hood. “We haven’t seen that in our other colonies yet this year. It’s a great sign.”

“They’re gifted, aren’t they?” I ask. “You’re trying to tell us we have gifted and talented bees.”

“They are very talented,” she assures me, and I think she really means it.

I turn to my wife. “Those kids,” I say.

“So proud,” she agrees.

Attention to detail

Masterman slides the slender frame slowly back into the wooden hive box, where nine other frames hang side by side, like file folders in an office drawer. She nudges three or four recalcitrant bees from the back of her bare hand onto the top edge of the frames, and they all disappear into the hive to continue their endless work. She jots her observations in a notebook and, still barehanded, pulls out another frame.

She understands what she’s seeing. We emphatically do not. And so, like parents at the doctor’s office, we glance hopefully and anxiously between our fragile charges and the expert examining them. We are all hoping not to see a sign of any the stresses that are cumulatively decimating bee populations nationwide and worldwide.

Those stresses are a scientific alphabet soup to any layperson — verroa destructor mites, nosema ceranae fungal parasites, European foul brood bacterial disease, neonicotinoid pesticides, farmland monocultures — but they are summarized in an increasingly familiar term: Colony Collapse Disorder.

Behind the almost reassuring certainty of even that unsettling term, there lies the terrifying possibility that our current way of life is killing bees faster than they can replace themselves, and that without bees, none of us will have enough to eat.

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  • Becky Masterman, of the Bee Squad from the University of Minnesota Entomology Department, checks on the health of a hive.

  • Becky Masterman inspected the frame of a back-yard hive in the Twin Cities.

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