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the bees' needs
Tony Evans explores how Idahoans are helping save the honeybee.
s Paulette Phlipot

"Bees are absolutely the most fascinating creatures," said Norma Kofoed, owner of Veebee Honey in Buhl, Idaho. "You can tell how happy they are by their hum. If they are upset you can hear that, too, and you don't want to go too close. They will warn you by bumping you with their heads before stinging you."

The symbiosis that exists among human beings, honeybees and the many plants they pollinate each year is one of the most remarkable in the natural world, and one of the most important. Yet it is also one of the most threatened—including in southern Idaho.

"Bees are having a pretty hard time making it on their own anymore," said Tom Harned, owner of Five Bee Hives in the Wood River Valley. Harned took to beekeeping four years ago and today has 400 hives, which he rotates through plots in Croy and Quigley canyons near Hailey as well as backyards in Hailey and Bellevue that he rents from their owners, paying in honey. "Research shows that about 98 percent of feral hives have vanished from our landscape—killed off by other introduced bugs and diseases. In general, the only bees left are those under the care of beekeepers."
Tom Harned inspects the production of one of Five Bee Hives' 400 bee colonies. The hives live and work in backyards and fields throughout the Wood River Valley.
Photo by Roland Lane

Beekeeping, or apiculture, dates back to the time of ancient Egypt, when bee colonies were kept in vessels from which its workers flew to scour the countryside in search of nectar from flowering plants. In the process, bees also transferred pollen between pistils and stamens of nearby plants and flowers, providing a crucial bridge for an abundance of local produce. Still today, honeybees aid in the pollination of the plants that humans rely on for food, including seed and feed crops, beans, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

The honeybees' vital role in agriculture came sharply into focus in 2007 when "colony collapse disorder" became front-page news. Thousands of beehives, many of them used to pollinate large-scale agricultural operations in the United States and Europe, were mysteriously dying. "Bees are essential," said Kofoed, of VeeBee Honey. "Colony collapse could even affect our meat supply because honeybees pollinate a lot of alfalfa and clover and prairie grasses out on BLM land, which are used for grazing cattle."

The threat to crops prompted an alarm to be sounded. Studies were launched. The press cited multiple causes for colony collapse, from pesticide use to a lack of genetic diversity to cell phone radiation. The studies came back with complicated answers, including some causes that have been affecting bees for centuries. Small-scale beekeepers, including those in southern Idaho, began coming up with creative solutions on their own.

Kirk Tubbs is a beekeeper with a solid footing in the scientific world. His day job is managing the Twin Falls County Pest Abatement Program. He and his family also run Tubbs' Berry Farm, offering beekeeping classes to the public each spring. "I tell people to think of colony collapse as death by a thousand cuts," he said. "No one has narrowed it down to just one cause." However, Tubbs cites varroa mites, which came to these shores about 20 years ago, as a leading contender. "Beekeepers used pesticides to fight the mites, but these pesticides began to build up in the hives' wax. The mites developed resistance to the pesticides, basically becoming immune to them. When mites go bee to bee, they spread viruses. I tell people just starting out that if you don't treat for mites, you'll lose your hive within two years."

A federally certified wildlife biologist who worked as a technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 10 years, Tubbs oversees a mosquito and black fly control program in Twin Falls, using natural, biologically based products rather than pesticides and other chemicals. He also uses primarily naturally based treatments for mites, including thyme oil, which irritates the mites until they fall off the bees. He sprinkles powdered sugar to clog the mites' feet, also causing them to drop off the bees.

Tubbs said some beekeepers are selecting for naturally occurring "hygienic behaviors" in worker bees. "Some bees will sniff out diseased bees and get rid of them before they hatch. It's an exciting thing and it's working. Someone with a handful of hives will do a lot of experimenting."
VeeBee Honey in Buhl began in 2003 with 50 hives and today boasts more than 1,000. Kofoed, who owns the operation with her son Scott VanDerwalker, said it "got hit pretty hard" three or four years ago and lost about 40 percent of its bees to colony collapse disorder.

Along with citing the varroa mites, Kofoed has her own theories as to the reasons for the collapse, including feeding the bees high-fructose corn syrup in winter from genetically modified corn seeds. Some GMO seeds have been modified to resist the corn borer, and the modification could be passed on to bee colonies during pollination. Kofoed has used antibiotic powders mixed with powdered sugar to treat Nosema apis, a small, unicellular parasite recently reclassified as a fungus that causes diarrhea in honeybees. She has also used menthol to treat microscopic tracheal mites.

Since colony collapse nearly destroyed the business a few years ago, VanDerwalker has created hundreds of new colonies by making his own "nukes"—nuclei of bee broods from active hives. Kofoed explained that male drones know how to make a queen on their own. They feed some of the female larvae a glandular secretion called royal jelly, which causes queens to be conceived. If a good queen bee prospect is born, the drones kill the rest of the competition. "Royal jelly must be pretty powerful stuff, as it turns a regular worker bee into a queen bee," she said.

It was a lot of work to rebuild the lost hives, but by last summer VeeBee Honey had more hives than before colony collapse disorder struck. "I'm very optimistic about bees," Tubbs concluded. "Mysterious bee deaths are nothing new. You can read about them in bee journals from a hundred years ago. But people back then were probably dealing with different causes than we are now."

The national attention that the plight of the bee has attracted has shined a light on the importance of small-scale beekeepers, which in turn has opened consumers' eyes to the benefits of local, raw honey. Whatever a bee ingests winds up in its honey. Bees collect nectar from flowers up to six miles away from a hive, through a long proboscis, regurgitating the nectar into thousands of hexagonal cells in the hive. The nectar is then dehydrated into honey and used as a food source, for both bees and humans. It contains amino acids from pollen and enzymes from bees' bellies. The mix produces distinctive flavors and other properties gathered from surrounding vegetation.

VeeBee hives are scattered in bunches of 20 to 30 hives per "yard"—beekeeper jargon for a collection of hives—around southern Idaho, including in the Wood River Valley. Yards are placed close to alfalfa and trees that bloom, such as locust and Russian olive. In the Wood River Valley, bees especially gather around wildflowers. This honey has a different taste than agricultural honey, Kofoed noted. "This year, it had a hint of apple and cinnamon, like an apple pie. I have no idea what gives it that flavor. It was so pretty and so tasty."

This honey is of particular significance to those who suffer from allergies. "Wild honey not only tastes good but has medicinal value," Kofoed said. "Most is not filtered of pollen. People who are allergic to ragweed and the other things the bees are around will become desensitized to their allergies by eating raw honey with pollen from within the area. Most allergy specialists will tell people to go eat some raw honey from their area if they're allergic to local plants."

Like most raw honey producers, Harned, of Five Bee Hives, does not filter his nectar, using only small amounts of heat when extracting it from the comb and when bottling. Too much heat kills the healthy enzymes in the honey, eliminating almost all the benefits and leaving a substance that is as nutritious as white sugar. As well as an effective allergy treatment, raw honey's antibacterial properties can help treat wounds, prevent infection, heal sunburn and improve acne. It's also packed with vitamins B2, B3, B5, B6 and C, as well as minerals, including potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron.

The value of the honeybee is clear, and while the scientists and professionals look for a solution to its ongoing plight, everyone can help its odds of survival. "If you see one of the bees in your yard sometime, take care to watch it collect the pollen and nectar from flowers or perhaps drink from the birdbath or pond," Harned said. "Planting bee-friendly flowers in the yard will encourage the forager-bees to come visit, so please consider helping them out in that small way."

Late last August, patrons of Lefty's Bar & Grill in downtown Ketchum were treated to a rare sight as they sipped their beverages under the hot summer sun. A swarm of honeybees swept over their heads. The bees had belonged to Ananda Kriya, from whose historic wooden house on River Street they had ascended after their hive had become too crowded, leaving a few busy worker bees behind to repopulate. Kriya, who for many years lived in a monastery in Hawaii where he learned to raise bees and sell their honey to bakeries in Honolulu, started the hive with a brood from Marsing, Idaho. "The bees have a way of quieting down the place psychically," he said. "They calm everyone down around here."

He watched as the bees headed west in search of a place to live in the wild. "I hope they find a good home," he said.

"Working with bees is not something you can learn.
It is a sense."

Norma Kofoed

Ananda Kriya harvests the honey produced by his River Street hive last summer. Locally made honey is available to purchase at Nourishme, Main Street Market and Atkinsons' Markets in the Wood River Valley.

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