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With bee colonies collapsing, beekeeping is more than a hobby

Almost two years ago, Fred and Kim Rivera started Backyard Bees of Bend, fittingly, in their own backyard. The business offers beehive items anyone looking to get started would need. But, more than anything, Kim said they started the business as a way to mentor amateur beekeepers.

"It's captivating," Kim asserts. "Instead of going to nature, nature is coming to you."

They have three backyard hives, and another 17 hives located on additional acreage. A hive averages 40,000 to 60,000 bees, Kim said, and under certain conditions there can be up to 100,000.

It's hard to pinpoint when backyard beekeeping began to take off, but over the past several years there has been a noticeable uptick, probably not unconnected to mysterious and massive die-offs of honeybees everywhere. Starting in 2005, reports about massive bee deaths—or Colony Collapse Disorder, as it became known—were widespread. CDC has been blamed for slashing the global bee population by as much as 50 percent.

Explanations for the deaths include mites and parasites, unsustainable commercial practices and the use of pesticides—a theory underscored by a massive die-off of bees in Oregon last month when some 25,000 bumblebees in Wilsonville and Hillsboro were found dead or dying. Those bees in particular were found near European linden trees, which had been treated with pesticides to control aphids. Shortly after the discovery, the Oregon Department of Agriculture restricted for 180 days 18 pesticide products that contain the active ingredient dinotefuran.

Some speculate backyard beekeeping is helping maintain bee populations. Kim also acknowledges that beekeeping may be growing because of the self-sustainability and backyard gardening movement. For her and Fred, though, it was all about sharing their love for bees with others and spreading knowledge like nectar.

For her, the art of beekeeping started with a 2008 book, The Secret Life of Bees, a best-selling coming-of-age story that echoes To Kill A Mocking Bird and featured racial issues and eminently likable beekeeping sisters as central characters. That book led Kim to discover the Central Oregon Beekeeping Association in Bend. Soon after, she put her hands in a beehive for the first time; that very same day, she purchased two hives.

"We just decided to wing it," she says with a laugh. Fred helps out by assembling the frames for hives in their garage.

The importance of bees—and their contribution to food systems—cannot be understated.

Some beekeepers also suggest nutritional benefits to consuming honey; however, registered dietitian Lori Brizee, owner of Central Oregon Nutrition Consultants.

Brizee said honey contains trace amounts of vitamin B, but added that we would have to consume a lot to make a difference. Brizee said she personally uses honey because she likes the taste, not to obtain nutritional benefits.

What bees offer, though, is something more grand: Brizee, who has a master's in nutritional science and is licensed by the state, points out that bees are essential to our ecosystem, as they pollinate 40 percent of the food we consume. "When you see a species in trouble, dying off, that's a signal of something bigger," she adds.

If you decide to become a beekeeper, there are multiple ways to care for your new friends.

The Riveras have helped at least 50 people start or divide hives locally. They recommend not being afraid to ask questions or make mistakes.

Other resources to learn about beekeeping include classes at Oregon State University and the Central Oregon Beekeepers Association, which meets at 6:30 p.m. the second Thursday of the month at 63211 Service Rd.

You can help bees, not just by becoming a backyard beekeeper, but also by becoming familiar with plants bees enjoy and creating a bee-friendly garden.

"My girls, they give me a lot of joy," Kim adds.

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