Danny Reid became a beekeeper, he says, because he wanted to make more beer.
“I’ve been a homebrewer for two decades, and I wanted to start making more mead,” he says. “Mead is fermented honey. If you’re going to do that with local honey, well, honey’s expensive.” Reid found out about beekeeping classes hosted by the Botanical Gardens. “I’m always looking for some new hobby,” he says. “So I just signed up.”
Now, Reid has five beehives in his backyard, each holding an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 bees. One — a “top-bar” hive whose structure allows nearby bees to infiltrate and steal its honey — has recently died. The other hives, however, are frenetically alive. Reid calms them with a smoking can of pine needles — enough to convince them to retreat to their hive, which they believe might be on fire — and opens up the four hives, which the bees have attempted to glue shut with a sticky substance called propolis.
“There’s nothing I don’t learn every time I open a hive,” Reid says. “I find something different every time.” He pulls forth vertical wooden slats covered in worker bees, squinting closely through the mesh hood of his beekeeping suit. “I’ve gotten to where I can find the queen almost every time — you just have to stop looking. It’s like Waldo.”
He identifies the queen, a bee with darker coloring from the rest, crawling amid the throng of bees until she has topped the slat and moved over to the reverse side. Through the swarm of worker bees, she’s almost camouflaged.
“I think I’ve learned just how absolutely fascinating they are,” Reid says. “They’re so dialed into that space on earth. So, say, if we went this afternoon and I picked up this hive and moved it seven feet over there, they’d all die. When they flew back, they would not be able to find it, because their hive is right there in earth. They know it’s right there. Even if they fly out three miles, they come back to that spot, and even if their hive [has been moved a small distance away] they’ll never find it. You can only move a hive up to, like, three feet a day and them still be able to find it.”
“Answer This Wake-Up Call”
By most metrics, it’s been a tough decade for honeybees. In 2006, reports of steep dropoffs in honeybee populations began to emerge, a decline attributed to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.). Because C.C.D. has no agreed-upon cause — early reports describing it as a “mysterious affliction” express only slightly less certainty than current understandings of the disorder’s roots — it has proven a difficult problem to address directly.
Cases have been made placing the blame on a then-new type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, combinations of viruses and fungi (that theory proposed by the U.S. Army), or parasites and malnutrition. A 2015 article in New York magazine suggested C.C.D. was the result of stress on the colony’s workers; “It Turns Out Bees Are, Quite Literally, Worrying Themselves to Death,” the headline read.
But the symptoms of C.C.D. are much easier to define. Most of a colony’s adult worker bees vanish, leaving behind the queen, a large store of food and recently hatched brood with a few nurse bees to take care of them. The absence of adult bees and their ability to provide for the immature bees eventually lead to the colony’s collapse.
In 2013, The Guardian reported that 10 million beehives had succumbed to C.C.D. since 2007. A 2015 report from the Bee Informed Partnership and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed thousands of beekeepers, who reported losing 42 percent of their colonies from 2014–15 — up from from the 34 percent loss from 2013–14. The number rose again the following year; U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their bees from 2015–16. (Some reports express skepticism that these claims are as dire as they seem, citing “the queens’ enormous reproductive abilities, which will quickly recoup those losses.”)
The consequences of such mass die-offs are far reaching. Honeybees are significant pollinators of most of the global food supply. “Of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of our global food supply, 71 are bee-pollinated,” wrote University of Minnesota entomology professor Marla Spivak in a CNN column. “Anybody who cares about the health of the planet, for now and for generations to come, needs to answer this wake-up call.” A U.N. report published earlier this year, meanwhile, warned of “increasing consequences” of the decline of bees and other pollinators on the global food supply.
Those consequences can be expressed in financial terms as well, which is how the White House described them when announcing an initiative to address honeybees’ decline. “Pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets,” the White House said in a 2014 statement. The following year, Obama administration announced its “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” — which focused on revitalizing habitats for bees but received criticism from environmentalists for not addressing the role of neocotinoids in the honeybees’ decline. Also notable was the introduction of a beehive at the White House, consisting of 70,000 honeybees to pollinate the presidential garden.
“A Younger Movement”
In the fight to stop the loss of honeybee populations, urban areas — like Washington, D.C., or Birmingham, for example — have become surprisingly important. Despite not having as many green spaces as rural environments, urban areas have great potential to be honeybee havens, some scientists have speculated, due to the diversity of plant species in those areas — though they also make it easier for some diseases to transfer between honeybees.
Urban beekeeping has surged in recent years, with major cities such as New York and Chicago seeing increases in their bee populations in recent years. Birmingham, too, has seen an increase in beekeeping in recent years, say members of the Jefferson County Beekeepers Association, an organization dedicated to “[promoting beekeeping] through the education of its beekeepers about the honeybee and assist in the sale of honeybee products.”
“It’s definitely grown,” says Adam Hickman, a member of the association’s board of directors and owner of Foxhound Bee Company, a beekeeping equipment supplier based in Birmingham. “The reason I know that is that I’ve been a part of teaching the beginner course through the [JCBA]. We always post for classes on January 1, and they usually sell out in a week or so… We do about 50 [students] per class, because that’s all the room can handle. Last year, we did two 50-person classes and still sold out of both of them. We had to turn some people away.”
Hickman, who has been a member of the JCBA since 2011, says that the limiting factors for beekeeping classes weren’t public interest so much as they were the availability of qualified teachers. “There are so many people who want to learn,” Hickman says. “There are more people who want to get into beekeeping and want to learn about bees than there are people who can teach them.” In the prime springtime months, where hands-on teaching would be most possible and helpful to students, most beekeepers are focused on maintaining their own hives — and that hands-on teaching, Hickman says, is essential.
“[Without] a feel for what it’s like inside the hive… it’s like trying to explain to somebody how to paint without a paintbrush in their hand or a palette,” he says. “It’s difficult.”
The students involved in the classes, which take place at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, can typically be sorted into two groups, Hickman says. “It’s probably people that are in their 20s and 30s, and then people who are retired and have the time and money and have always wanted to do it…. It’s not just hipsters.”
The age range reaches even younger than that when it comes to Birmingham beekeeping, though. The Botanical Gardens’ pollinator display habitat — a section of the gardens adjacent to the gardens’ three hives — was planned and executed by Girl Scouts for their Silver Projects.
The Botanical Gardens’ Plant Adventures Program Specialist, Brooke McMinn, said that the Girl Scouts behind the pollinator display habitat “were really into pollinators, especially bees and their importance agriculturally and ecologically.” Now, a new troop of Girl Scouts, which is actually housed at the gardens, maintains the display.
As a whole, urban beekeeping, Hickman adds, is also beneficial to the general health of the bees themselves; the genetic diversity of privately owned bees, he says, provides for less inbreeding-related sicknesses than commercial bee operations, which don’t allow for that level of interbreeding.
“One of these things that I’ll say to beginner classes, when they ask about colony collapse — it’s probably one of the best things to ever happen for bees in the U.S.,” Hickman says. “If we didn’t have this resurgent interest in beekeeping, and a lot of people keeping one or two hives in their backyard, our bees would be doing a whole lot worse than they are now.”
“I Blame Winnie the Pooh”
Beekeeping in Birmingham isn’t without its challenges, however. Bees remain in danger from mosquito-targeting pesticides sprayed both by the city and privately, which if sprayed during the day could be fatal for the insects. Spraying after dark does not affect bees, which are diurnal, since most pesticides dissipate quickly.
A more intimidating obstacle, Hickman and Reid say, is public misperception of honeybees.
“In our relationship with the community, one of the biggest things that we face as beekeepers is people being unjustifiably scared of them,” Hickman says. “It’s really, really unfair for bees and beekeepers. A lot of people think that all bees are Africanized bees and are out to sting and kill, but definitely the vast majority of stings don’t come from honeybees. They come from wasps and hornets and yellowjackets, which are a completely different animal.”
Reid — also a member of the JCBA’s board of directors — cites a general “ignorance concerning bees” as a major problem for beekeepers in the city. “I’ve had the police called on me this year from my neighbor, who said my bees were attacking him and that they had made a nest in a hole in the ground right near his door,” he says. Reid, who by profession is a police detective, found himself explaining to the responding officers that, “‘Well, honeybees don’t live underground. He has yellowjackets.’
“If you’re the local beekeeper, you get blamed for everything,” he adds, sighing.
“I blame Winnie the Pooh,” says Hickman, referring to the 1977 animated Disney film. “You always [see] Winnie the Pooh stealing honey and getting chased by these bees. But actually, if you look at the cartoon, it’s not a beehive. It’s a wasp’s nest. That circular, conical looking thing that hangs from the tree? Honeybees don’t live in those. That’s a paper wasp nest… It’s just a lot of stuff like that, people thinking that a lot of stuff is true just because they saw it in a movie. But movies aren’t the truth.”
“People Get Dramatically More Interested”
When Danny Reid was voted onto the JCBA’s board of directors last year, it didn’t take him long to find a way to blend his passions together. “My first meeting on the board, I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea if we’re looking at doing a fundraiser or a fun event to raise awareness for bees,” he says.
That idea became the Honey Bee*r Project, a fundraising event that will take place at Avondale Brewing Company on Saturday, October 8, at 5 p.m.. The event will see the release of a beer that Reid created with Avondale’s brewers, “a special release Farmhouse Honey Ale made with 120 lbs. of local, wildflower honey,” according to a press release.
“Which is an [expletive]-ton of honey,” Reid adds.
Portions of the proceeds from the event will go toward establishing pollinator gardens at Red Mountain Park, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and to expanding the Botanical Gardens’ pollinator habitat.
But Reid says that, aside from fundraising, the educational possibilities provide the event its biggest opportunity. “We’re going to have tables set up with some literature about how to be friendly toward bees,” even if you aren’t a beekeeper yourself, he says.
“[For example,] what could you do in your yard to be mindful of bees? Bees need water, just like everything else, so it’s a good idea to keep some birdbaths filled. Of course, with the issues of mosquitoes this year, nobody’s wanting to have water standing around. [But] Jefferson County is giving those little mosquito discs that you put in the water. They don’t affect bees. If you’re going to have standing water, at least use those to kill the mosquitos because it doesn’t hurt the bees,” Reid says.
Hopefully, Reid says, the event will continue to expand Birmingham’s role as a bee-friendly city. “It sounds like a seller. It sounds like fun,” he says. “I think this will help. Having an event such as this — if it’s not interesting, people won’t care. But if you marry beer to anything, people get dramatically more interested.
“It’s been a farming thing for so long,” he added. “But I think if you get the information out there, it’ll be less about farming and more trendy and hip and just good for the environment all around.”