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Bee Well 

Backyard beekeepers buzzing along

Springtime is bee time in Central Oregon, as backyard bee hives come alive. Photos by Richard Sitts.

Springtime is bee time in Central Oregon, as backyard bee hives come alive. Photos by Richard Sitts.

Tumalo Bee Academy is led by long-time local beekeeper Stephen Harris, who has been working with bees in Central Oregon for about the past 40 years. His business card reads, "Saving the honey bee one new beekeeper at a time." The goal of the bee academy is to educate and encourage as many new beekeepers as possible. "The local beekeeper is going to be the one to save the honey bee from the demise that they are going through," Harris says.

Over the past several decades, honey bees worldwide have had a tough go of it. Honey bee populations have been decimated by the major culprits, American foul brood disease, Colony Collapse Disorder, the deadly varroa mite (Varroa destructor), global climate change and industrial pesticide use. The honey bee is a fighter, however, and has slowly recovered somewhat, though all of these factors against it still pose a serious threat.

Part of attracting new beekeepers is eliminating humans' fear of bees through education, according to Harris. "They won't bother you unless you bother them," he says.

For such a tiny creature, the honey bee is a huge cog in the global food chain. Honey bees are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the pollination on the planet, greatly helping produce the food that we grow and eat. Their survival—indeed, their prosperity—should be a call to arms for all of us.

That's why, just over a year ago, my wife and I decided to raise bees, starting with our first box on July 2 of last year. They made it through their first winter OK, and just a couple of weeks ago we added a second box on top, giving the bees more space in which to build brood and to prevent them from swarming elsewhere. (Fun facts that I've learned over the past year of beekeeping: bees will travel up to seven miles to find nectar; even during the dead of winter, bees keep the internal temperature of the brood at 98.6 degrees; and during the height of summer, a single box can contain 60 to 80,000 worker bees.)

Allen Engle, president of the Central Oregon Beekeepers Association (COBKA), reports that swarming season is about to begin in Central Oregon. If bees start to feel too cramped in their current hive, they will leave en masse (swarm) to most anywhere they please, leaving the beekeeper with an empty hive. Anyone with a bee swarm problem can contact Harris or COBKA for assistance in removing the swarm.

Harris spent part of this past weekend working on a swarm that had taken up residence inside a front porch pillar of a newer house in Northeast Bend. He had to take apart the pillar partially and had with him a move-in ready box of frames with honey stores already built up to entice the wayward colony. Work began Friday afternoon, but by Saturday afternoon the bees were not cooperating. They were entrenched down deep inside the pillar, along with the queen (who never was visible) and were not showing much interest in the honeyed hive that Harris provided. He was going to give the bees one more night and part of Sunday to change their minds.

Harris was forlorn when discussing the worst case scenario of having to seal up the pillar with the queen and her bees inside, where they would eventually die. He estimates that he has carried out more than 100 bee swarm rescues over the years and says that this was one of the two or three worst cases that he's seen. These pillars on newer homes often are not tightly sealed and are quite popular with swarming bees, according to Harris.

Engle of COBKA says the group has about 90 active members and another 50 or so email-only members. As the group's website claims, some members do not even keep bees, "but are fascinated by the six legs and four wings of Apis mellifera." The association's mission statement is, "to promote effective, economic and successful regional beekeeping through education, collaboration, communication and research in the spirit of friendship."

Engle says that most members are bee hobbyists, keeping anywhere from one to 20 hives. "They are nice people to be around and visit with," Engle says. Meetings are held the fourth Tuesday evening of each month at the Environmental Center on Kansas Avenue. Contact the group through its website, www.cobeekeeping.org or its Facebook page.

The Tumalo Bee Academy meets on the second Tuesday evening of each month and Harris can be reached at 541-410-2067.

In his book, "Natural Beekeeping," Vermont beekeeper Ross Conrad writes that humans have revered the honey bee and honey since the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian times. Conrad urges fellow beekeepers to establish a personal and spiritual relationship with their bees through prayer, song, and dance. He writes, "Many of us already talk to our cars, televisions, and radios, so why not the bees?" The book is a 285-page illustrated bible of organic beekeeping and is the textbook for the Tumalo Bee Academy.

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