Intending to sell honey and help Mother Nature in the process by bringing more pollinators into the world, Dewey Hassig was full of optimism when he fenced off a square of his Minnetonka lawn for two bee hives.

He ordered his first bees in January 2004, took an inspiring three-day beekeeping class at the University of Minnesota that March and picked up several pounds of bees at a Stillwater supplier in April.

For Hassig, the next three years became a crash course in the many things killing bees nationwide.

After losing three hives, he started over this spring with two new batches of bees by giving them antibiotics -- a step he had hoped to avoid.

"Bees are dying; their populations are in decline,'' said Marla Spivak, a professor and honeybee researcher at the University of Minnesota.

A combination of threats -- including farm pesticides; sprawling development that has eliminated clover fields and other flowers and weeds bees feed on; and viruses and parasitic mites -- are all contributing to the decline, said Spivak, who teaches classes for back-yard beekeepers like Hassig.

Lost bees are a cause for alarm because, besides producing honey, bees carry pollen between blossoms providing the cross pollination necessary to produce the nation's fruit and vegetable crops -- including apples, oranges, blueberries, cranberries, melons and pumpkins.

On Sunday at 6:30 p.m., Spivak will be one of the featured speakers at a public discussion on the health of bees at Common Roots Cafe, 2558 Lyndale Ave. S. in Minneapolis. The event will begin with a preview of an upcoming documentary: "The Vanishing of the Bees."

One syndrome of particular concern across the nation since 2006 -- Colony Collapse Disorder -- has caused huge numbers of bees in large commercial hives to abandon their hives and disappear. The disorder, the cause of which has not yet been found, was blamed for a 31 percent decline in bee colonies in 2007.

In June, Congress received a report that mysterious causes had killed a record 36 percent of commercial bee colonies so far this year in the United States.

Minnesota beekeepers are losing bees mostly to parasitic mites and not in the dramatic fashion seen in Colony Collapse Disorder, said Dan Malmgren, president of the Minnesota Hobby Bee Keepers Association. The group has about 300 members in Minnesota, most of them in the metro area.

The allure of beekeeping

Hassig's interest in beekeeping is an extension of his general interest in nature. He keeps a few chickens, has a vegetable garden and allows wildflowers to cover much of his front yard.

"Ever since I can remember, my parents have always bought bulk honey,'' Hassig said. "That was kind of the appeal -- to keep a disappearing way of life going.''

He shelled out about $1,000 for the hives, gloves, protective suit and other equipment.

The reward has been watching the social activity of the hives, Hassig said. He enjoys watching the bees come and go. And he feels good about giving them a safe home. "It's hard for them to find a good site for a nest on their own,'' he said.

The bees have furthered his understanding nature. He now knows that honey tastes different depending on the flowers the bees feed on. He has also learned that bees feed on the blossoms of some trees including the Basswoods near his home. "Up until I started beekeeping I never thought of Basswood or any other tree as a source of nectar -- other than fruit trees,'' Hassig said.

So far, he has harvested about 175 pounds of honey. He keeps some and bottles the rest under the label of Minnetonka Wildflower Honey, which is for sale at a local grocery store. To promote honey and beekeeping, Hassig offers honey tasting at the store.

But the bee deaths -- roughly 50,000 bees per hive -- have been hard for Hassig. "Everything goes perfectly in the books,'' he said.

The first year he lost both of his hives because of his inexperience. He provided the required sugar water to promote honeycomb production, but the liquid went bad in hot weather and he didn't realize it. The second year, one hive died in the winter. The third year, mites or a virus set in, and both hives died last fall.

"It's a real source of frustration for me,'' Hassig said. "I would rather not use chemicals and accept more loss. But last year, when they died even before winter, I decided it was time to try the antibiotics.''

It's too soon to tell how the antibiotic treatment will work. He added it to the sugar water in the spring, timing the treatment before the bees started to produce honey.

Battling an epidemic

Spivak recommends that bees be raised with minimal chemical treatments to avoid contaminating honey, but she agrees with Hassig's decision to give antibiotics in the short term.

"There is a new species of an old disease out there that is killing a lot of honey bee colonies. So for right now we have to be treating,'' Spivak said.

It's the kind of exception a person who avoids medicine in favor of natural treatments would make if an epidemic moved through, she said.

If the hives die again, Hassig said he may try to kill the tick-like mites that attach to bees and weaken them. But that will be tricky, he said. "You are trying to kill a bug on another bug.''

He will go only so far with chemicals, he said. "When it gets to the point that it's safer to eat table sugar than honey, it's time to give it up.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711