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.
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: http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/bee_supporters/index.htm.
Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities tax preparer, real estate broker and writer.