Ian Coulson runs his bare fingers along the open gaps of the hive’s frames. “Good beekeepers don’t need gloves,” he says. He pries one frame out of the hive and lifts it up to the light.
Coulson, the co-founder of the Santa Cruz Bee Guild, is showing me his beehives. There aren’t as many as I’d expect. A third of his bees died last year, he tells me. Empty hive boxes lay in the tall grass around his hillside home high in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Not long ago, this would have alarmed local beekeepers—many rely on Coulson for advice when they suspect trouble at their own hives. But today, the news causes less of a stir. Beekeepers have been reporting alarming mass die-offs of their hives for more than a decade. In that time, according to some estimates, the U.S. has lost a third of its honeybees, and no one knows why.
Local beekeepers, however, are now stepping in to help. At the Santa Cruz Bee Guild, swarms of beginning beekeepers fill the meetings, eager to care for their first hives. This grassroots rally to save the bees is giving hives a new hope. But even with the guild’s help, keeping a beehive healthy nowadays may require a little luck.
No one can say for certain why bees are struggling. Bees face many stresses—disease, mites, poor nutrition, and insecticides—and the die-offs probably have no single culprit. But a general theme has emerged among the theories: bees and modern agriculture simply don’t get along.
It’s not easy to be an insect on today’s farms. For instance, most conventional farmers protect their fields from pests with insecticides—chemicals that kill insects but not plants. Spray-on insecticides have a long history, but today many farmers prefer systemic insecticides, which plants absorb through their roots or seeds.
In many ways, systemic pesticides trump the spray-on ones, at least from an agricultural perspective. Most notably, farmers are able to apply less of them to their fields, since the chemical compounds stay within the plants’ tissues. And they can’t blow away, a major benefit for neighborhoods that border farms. Systemic pesticides should also spare pest-fighting bugs, for example, since these helpful critters don’t eat farmers’ fruits.
“Bees already face stresses from commercial farming,” Aldrich says. “Adding neonicotinoids could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
But with their benefits, systemic pesticides also bring new challenges. With conventional insecticides, beekeepers kept their hives away when farmers sprayed. Now, compounds stick around in plants’ tissues—including in their pollen. And when scientists look in some beehives, they find traces of pesticides.
No one is certain how systemic pesticides affect bees. But many beekeepers connect them to the sudden and widespread bee die-offs they began finding a decade ago.
Complicating the problem is the fact that not all regulators agree on how to handle the compounds. In December of last year, for example, Canada banned the use of neonicotinoids, the systemic insecticide class most often blamed for the bee die-offs. In the U.S., though, the neonicotinoid review is ongoing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in January that one subset of neonicotinoids may harm bees, and they plan to assess others in the near future. Many beekeepers wonder why progress is so slow.
But the case against neonicotinoids may be gaining momentum. Last fall, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher Jonathan Lundgren filed a whistleblower suit in which he alleged that the agency had blocked his research on the harmful effects of neonicotinoids—a worrisome claim, if true.
Jeffrey Aldrich, a research entomologist for more than 30 years at the USDA, and now a consultant based in Santa Cruz, thinks the argument against neonicotinoids has merit. “Bees already face stresses from commercial farming,” Aldrich says. “Adding neonicotinoids could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Still, Coulson doesn’t blame modern agriculture for the bees’ plight.
“None of this is the farmer’s or the beekeeper’s fault,” he says. “It’s just that it’s hard to make a living farming today.”
Why Bees Matter
Plants flower for bees, not humans. Bees see colors invisible to humans, such as ultraviolet—possible, in part, because they have five eyes. So flowers use bright pigments, particularly yellow and blue, to catch bees’ attention. To reward visiting bees, flowers ooze nectar, a sugary bee food and the key ingredient of honey.
But flowers, like many organisms, have good reason to be sweet. Plants mate by sharing pollen, which sticks to the legs and bellies of bees that gather nectar. When bees depart for their next flower, the pollen tags along.
And seeds too, like pollen, must be spread. So plants embed their seeds in fruit—and humans, for example, carry the fruit away.
Flowers are savvy at attracting pollinator insects or animals to help them reproduce. But what happens when insects, like bees, aren’t there? If flowers fail to mate, they produce no seeds. And without seeds, plants have little reason to fruit.
Farmers, then, must make sure their crops have plenty of opportunity to mingle. When bees spread pollen, they help orchards and fields yield fruit. At first glance, convincing bees to pollinate farms might seem easy—bees thrive near flowering fields. But a farm is only a bounty when in bloom. When a farm grows one crop, as many do today, the farm’s flowers all bloom at the same time. Bees may feast, briefly. But soon, the blooming crop turns to fruit, and for bees, the party ends. Before the next year’s flowers open, the bees’ honeycomb stores will run dry.
Farmers solved this problem many years ago. Rather than entice bees to stay, they now hire commercial beekeepers to truck in bees. Moving hives may be costly for farmers and stressful for bees, but mobile colonies make flowers fruit. And today, these bees-on-wheels visits help produce a third of the food we eat.
Farms can’t survive without bees, but bees don’t need farms. And the new wave of beekeepers at the guild cares little about farming—they just want to give the bees a fighting chance.
But beware, Coulson warns: keeping a colony alive in the backyard isn’t easy. Bees that live miles from conventional farms, for example, still have plenty to worry about. Over the last few years, California’s long drought stifled many of the flowers that Santa Cruz bees visit. Some hives struggled to find food and water.
Bees also suffer from their own pests. Within many hives, the tiny varroa mite burrows into apiaries, or birthing chambers. “They literally suck the life out of bees,” says Aldrich. Many beekeepers intend to raise colonies without chemicals, but end up forced to treat—or else lose—their bees.
And new pests like the varroa or tracheal mites pop up suddenly. “Pests have always occurred from time to time,” Coulson says, “But nowadays they spread more quickly.”
Commercial beekeepers cart their hives from coast to coast to follow the blooms of major crops such as almonds, cranberries, or pears. Meanwhile, pests tag along.
“It didn’t take long before varroa was attacking hives on both coasts, and everywhere in between,” Coulson says. “So many hives were dying, the mites almost ran out of places to go.”
“Beekeepers know what is blooming in their neighborhood, but their friends and neighbors start paying attention, too.”
Aldrich thinks bees face a continued struggle ahead. “Bees will have a tough time weathering the pests until scientists find better solutions,” he says.
Coulson doesn’t think that the mite problem will go away. “But bees will become tougher, and more hygienic,” Coulson says. “And the mites will learn to be gentler.”
And more generally, Coulson feels optimistic. “Bees have had to overcome so many problems before,” he says. In other words, honeybees are resilient in the long run—they just need time to adapt.
While bees learn to live with the latest pest or disease, hobbyist beekeepers need some coaching in order to keep their colonies humming. Many seek advice from more experienced beekeepers through the Santa Cruz Bee Guild.
“Anyone can join,” Coulson says. “If you show up at a meeting, you’re part of the bee guild.” But that being said, the guild also strives to deter new beekeepers who may not be ready for so much responsibility.
“If you think you want to keep bees, first research carefully,” says guild member Marja van den Hende.
Bee guild meetings aren’t just for beekeepers. Last month, members discussed which garden plants bees visit most—coyote brush and madrone were local favorites, with lavender and rosemary close behind—useful info for bee-friendly folk who will never keep their own bees.
The beekeeping art survives mainly through mentorship, so the guild strives to pairs newbies with experienced beekeepers. And learning with family is common. Coulson, for example, learned about bees from his parents in England.
“Whenever I visit my family,” he says, “they still ask me about my queens.”
Sometimes, parents and children learn together. The bee guild’s late core founder, Peter Cook, began beekeeping alongside his son James. The two helped each other along, learning to care for their hives. His wife, too, began making salves and soaps from beeswax.
Van den Hende believes that beekeeping brings communities together. Beekeepers learn from anecdotes, and must enlist the trust and encouragement of friends. “Beekeepers know what is blooming in their neighborhood,” says van den Hende. “But their friends and neighbors start paying attention, too.”
As Coulson pulls the lid off another hive, van den Hende takes my arm. “Put your hand over the bees,” she says. “Can you feel the hive’s warmth? Keep bees, and you must become their steward.”
Coulson nods. “When you reach inside a hive, you touch a mysterious world,” he says.
Best then, perhaps, to leave the gloves behind, and feel the world against bare skin.
Learn more about the Santa Cruz Bee Guild. Visit santacruzbees.com, or come by a guild meeting (First Wednesday of every month, community room of El Rio Mobile Home Park).
Sidebar: Honeybees vs. Native Bees
Honeybees haven’t always been in Santa Cruz. Europeans first brought them to America centuries ago to make honey. But before Europeans and honeybees sailed to the New World, native bees were already here, pollinating California’s diverse wildflowers.
Unlike honeybees, most native bees don’t form large colonies. In fact, most don’t form colonies at all. And besides the bumblebee, which, compared to honeybees, make a small amount of honey that is much harder to harvest, native bees make no honey—no surprise then that honeybees get all the love.
But luckily for native bees, local projects to help out honeybees likely aid native bees as well. For example, gardeners often plant pollen-rich flowers with honeybees in mind, but native bees visit, too.
“They definitely make use of urban gardens,” says Angie Ashbacher, a UCSC graduate student who studies interactions between plants and pollinators, such as bees.
Ashbacher says a few small changes can make urban gardens more welcoming to native bees. Most importantly, she recommends that gardeners preserve spaces for native bees to build their homes.
“Honeybees may fly 5 miles to find food,” she says. “But native bees stay close to their nests.” So for native bees to visit urban gardens, they need shelter nearby.
Keeping a space for native bees isn’t tough. “Leave a few dead stems on your trees,” Ashbacher says. Many native bees adopt old stems to build their homes. “Or if you’d rather,” she says, “buy a native bee nest box.”
And when gardeners shelter native bees, they help their gardens produce more fruit. Although honeybees seem to steal the spotlight, they can’t compete with native bees when it comes to pollinating flowers.