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Rhapsody in Bee

Honeybees live in a perfect society, says beekeeper Jerry Webb. "You're either useful or you're dead. There's no welfare system." Photo: Isidor Stankov/Shutterstock

Pity the bee.

She’s swatted, poisoned, dreaded, feared and mistakenly maligned as a picnic pest.

Yes, pity the bee, who minds her garden as well as her manners and carries the world as we know it on her robust little back.

Think of her when you bite into a peach or enjoy a cool slice of watermelon on a searing summer day. Thank her for pollinating your cucumbers and squash, apples and almonds. Offer a benediction for the bee when you take your child’s hand in yours and wander into a pumpkin patch on a fall afternoon to select a plump orange gourd — the product of the bee’s busy work.

All the buzz

Spend an afternoon with Jerry Webb (BSBA ’54) and you’ll likely become a bee admirer, if not an outright devotee.

Of Colorado’s some 1,000 native bee species, Webb’s heart belongs to one — Apis mellifera, the honeybee, which technically isn’t native but has been a part of the North American landscape since the 1600s.

Webb has tended honeybee hives since his childhood in Kansas, and for the past 34 years, home for man and bee has been a modest spread south of Denver near Chatfield State Park. He’s taught beekeeping classes for the Denver Botanic Gardens for 17 years, and he and wife Bette own a business, the Beekeeper Co., which sells beekeeping and candle-making supplies.

“I just know what great things she does, and that’s beautiful,” Webb says, his tender words directed at the honeybee — referred to as a “she” because most are, indeed, female.

Once, Webb’s property was surrounded by prairie and hayfields that now bloom with McMansions, including a Greek-revival he wryly refers to as “Tara.”

What do his upscale neighbors think of his thousands of bees?

“Who cares?” he replies with a shrug and complete sincerity.

Bees are the thing, don’t you know.

Webb offers a litany of practical reasons why bees make better neighbors than, say, a transplanted Louisiana divorcee with house to spare.

“Every third bite you take is backed up by a bee,” Webb points out. “Without bees, we wouldn’t eat very well.”

“If we didn’t have bees, we wouldn’t have any fruit or hardly any veggies,” adds local beekeeper Jo Haugland, one of Webb’s former students.

North America’s 4,000 or so native bee species are adapted to pollinate wild plants, including fruits like chokecherries and wild plums, she explains. American colonists introduced the honeybee (or “white man’s fly,” as legend has it) because the apples, pears and other crops they favored required a more robust and plentiful pollinator than native species.

U.S. agriculture and honeybees developed symbiotically, and today, honeybees and their less-plentiful wild kin pollinate more than 90 agricultural crops in the U.S., a service valued at more than $10 billion by the National Honey Board. In Colorado, bees contribute some $20 million in pollination services to crops including apples, cherries, peaches, sunflower seeds, pears, melons, squash and alfalfa seed.

But even that might be selling bees short.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States’ 2.4 million honeybee colonies produced nearly 175 million pounds of honey last year. The value: almost $158 million, $1.9 million of that in Colorado.

Beyond that, there’s the value of migratory beekeeping, whereby keepers truck hives from states like Colorado to pollinate crops in California, for instance, which doesn’t have enough hives of its own to pollinate an almond crop that tops a half-million acres. Beekeepers can earn up to $140 per hive for this seasonal service, and most almond growers need two to three hives per acre. Do the math.

Still, some would argue, the value of bees goes well beyond dollars and cents.

Haugland uses bee stings to treat her fibromyalgia; stings are also widely used to treat dozens of conditions ranging from arthritis to multiple sclerosis. For thousands of years, honey has been used as an antiseptic for wounds, and some believe it can reduce or cure allergies.

Hike Colorado’s mountains, and you’re sure to see bees’ bounty. Thank bees for the raspberries and other flora favored by bears, which also enjoy eating bees themselves. Wildflowers and shrubs — the habitat and food upon which a variety of wildlife depends: Again, thank the bees.

And, just imagine the aesthetic effect of a world without bees — no buzzing backyard gardens, warm on a June Saturday and bursting with the fragrance of lilac and rose. No green metallic bees or yellow-banded bumbles — the hirsute little tanks that can squeeze the pollen from a blossom with a big bee hug.

Webb has watched the bees’ world shrink as crops of houses have sprouted like weeds where bee habitat once thrived. Along with habitat loss, he says, pesticide and herbicide use has also left its mark.

For honeybees, though, the most deadly poison is actually in the pest.

Jerry Webb (BSBA ’54) has been beekeeping for most of his life, getting his start on the family farm in Kansas.
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Since the mid 1980s, honeybees in the U.S. have been stricken by a perfectly lethal parasite from Asia — the Verroa mite, which sucks out the innards of infected bees and larvae.

For more than 20 years, Jerry Cochran headed Colorado’s state apiary management program — a role that was eliminated several years back due to funding cuts and the fact that hives no longer needed inspection. They were all infested.

An entomologist by training and a hobbyist beekeeper himself, Cochran notes that the mite decimated the honeybee population. “We’re controlling the Verroa mite, not eliminating it,” he says, explaining that a managed hive can be treated with medication, but feral colonies cannot.

The result has been a decline of at least 50 percent in U.S. honeybee populations. Honeybees are vital to crop production because they can be reared in large quantities, transported and are available year-round for pollination, so with the mite fast becoming resistant to current treatments, researchers are scurrying to find new remedies. Meanwhile, Colorado alfalfa growers, for one, are turning to a mite-resistant native leafcutter bee to pick up some of the pollination slack. Other wild bees could help, too, if only their numbers were stronger.

Cochran feels the honeybee’s loss acutely. After all, he’s a fan.

“They’re a fascinating creature,” he says. “Their repertoire of behaviors is simply marvelous.”

That repertoire includes the ability to recognize hive mates and navigate by the sun. A honeybee returning to the hive following a foraging expedition will perform a gyrating “waggle dance” to tell her comrades how far and in which direction to find a food source. Those directions can be complicated, as honeybees may forage up to five miles from their nest.

Honeybee behaviors also include a sci-fi dark side: a coup d’etat that sees an aging queen stung to death by her workers; a crop of male “drones” bred to inseminate the queen and then starved to death once the deed is done.

“It’s a perfect society,” Webb says. “You’re either useful or you’re dead. There’s no welfare system.”

Honeybee aficionados are quick to the insect’s defense, however, on the point of the sting.

“Until you corner her, step on her or grab her, she’s not going to sting,” Cochran says. “She’s busy doing her job.”

In fact, says Webb, the sting is a suicidal last act that only about one in 10,000 honeybees will ever commit. Most stings, he notes, are not from bees at all; wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are the usual culprits.

“People blame everything on bees, but they do so much good,” Webb says.

“Honeybees take a bad rap,” Haugland adds. “They’re industrious, clean, organized and interesting. They’re completely focused. You can even walk up to a honeybee that’s collecting pollen and pet it on the back, they’re that intent.”

‘Tis true. Try it. Reach out to the honeybee sipping nectar from a bud and ever so gently, stroke her furry back just between the resting, lacy wings. She may startle and move to another flower. Or, she may continue suckling, sides heaving gently, as she communes with her flower and you with your bee.

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