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Continued: Raise your own bees through a University of Minnesota program

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

Yeah. It’s like that.

There is a popular before-and-after photo on the Web these days of a supermarket produce section with bees and without bees. As you toggle from the former to the latter, 237 out of 453 foods disappear before your eyes. Uh-huh. Like that.

A search for answers

This doesn’t sound like the stuff of happy endings, but there are a couple of odd bits of good news. The first is that we live in Minnesota. The second is that one day back in 1973 a teenager named Marla Spivak got bored.

What Spivak did was reach for a book, and that book happened to be about bees. Half a lifetime later, she is the Distinguished McKnight Professor of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. Spivak is a MacArthur Fellow, a worldwide expert on bees and their population decline, and she has just given a TEDGlobal talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, titled “Why Bees Are Disappearing.” She also runs the Bee Lab at the U of M, where they are researching the causes of colony collapse. So, pretty much, thank God for her.

As a way of illustrating what bees are facing, Spivak tells a story. Imagine you have the flu (bee viruses). Then imagine, suffering from the flu, you have to go get food for your family across miles of a food desert (farm monocultures). Imagine that when you get there, the available food is laced with a neurotoxin that disorients you or knocks you out completely (neonicotinoid pesticides).

Oh, and by the way, there may very well be the equivalent of an enormous wood tick on your back sucking your blood throughout all of this (varroa mites). Now go back home and work hard for the rest of the day, and do the same thing tomorrow. That’s what we’re currently asking bees to do. Spivak is trying to take some of the pressure off.

Training new beekeepers

One offshoot of her Bee Lab is a small group of students and ex-students who call themselves the Bee Squad. Their mission is to give hands-on training to beekeepers, but also to establish new colonies around the Twin Cities through a program called “Hive to Bottle.”

What that means is that, in a world full of amorphous and unsettling crises over which you have no control, here is one little opportunity to take direct action. You can buy a hive of bees from the Bee Squad, and they will not only deliver them to your residence, but they will look after your bees for you or teach you how to look after them yourself, and after the first year, when the colony is full-sized and well established, they will help you harvest your own back-yard honey.

Which brings us all the way back to the sunniest corner of our shady back yard — the corner where bees are most likely to thrive in a climate such as Minnesota’s.

Masterman is packing up. The bees resume their traffic pattern in and out of the hive’s tiny front door. They will fly as far as 2 miles away to find flowers, preferably wild, preferably abundant, preferably pesticide-free. They will drink the nectar and harvest the pollen, and along the way, a lot of local vegetable gardens and flower beds and fruit trees will get pollinated free of charge. Sort of like that neighbor with the snowblower who digs you out after every big storm and doesn’t really make a big deal out of it.

We watch them come and go. Our star pupils.

We try not to think yet about winter, when the wind will scream out of the northwest, and inside the hive, 40,000 bees will shiver hard enough to keep the temperature inside the hive at 70 degrees. We hope they find a lot of nectar this summer. Enough to get through to next spring, when the willows and the dandelions start blooming again.

To order a hive from the Bee Squad, or to find out about becoming one of their Bee Supporters, go to:


Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities tax preparer, real estate broker and writer.

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