Sarah Red-Laird in her protective bee suit. - Photos courtesy of Sarah Red-Laird

Bees in your backyard

Home gardening, food preserving and even tending livestock were threads in the fabric of daily life not so long ago. Backyard beehives often tied all the threads together.

"(It's) like, everyone's grandpa was a beekeeper," says Sarah Red-Laird, also known as Bee Girl.

Much like Americans' renewed pursuit of garden bounty from their own yards, there's a buzz around small-scale beekeeping, says Red-Laird, who plans to hold a February workshop on the topic.

"The pendulum is just swinging back toward people's backyards, and I think bees are just a part of that."

Bees are known for producing honey, but their most important role is pollinators of plants that yield food for people and animals. The insects thrived under human domestication for thousands of years — since the 1600s in the Americas — but since the late 1950s have steadily declined. Experts cite a variety of factors, some of which seem to combine and culminate in colony collapse disorder.

Backyard beekeeping — like cultivating heirloom crops and raising heritage breeds of animals — is touted as one strategy for ensuring the survival of honeybees, not to mention reclaiming traditional methods of food production, experts say.

Hobbyists are in a better position than commercial beekeepers to handle hives holistically, says John Jacob, owner of Old Sol Enterprises. The Rogue River company specializes in breeding disease-resistant bees and sells 70 to 80 percent of its starter hives to hobbyists.

"It's a way to distribute the burden of that heavy selection pressure," says Jacob of backyard beekeeping. "Many hands make light work, in other words."

The concept behind Oregon State University's new Master Beekeeper Program, set to launch this spring, involves tapping into the work of established beekeepers. Nearly all applicants to the program's apprentice level are hobbyists, says OSU research assistant Carolyn Breece.

"It just all comes down to education of beepkeepers," says Breece. "The hands-on training is what we thought was most important."

OSU created the curriculum with help from the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, which persistently advocated for it and helped the university reestablish research hives after several years without a professor of apiculture. The first Master Beekeeper Program in state history, Oregon's is the ninth nationwide and is based largely on Washington's program, in place for about 20 years, says Breece. There are waiting lists to enter the program in Eugene, Salem and Portland.

"It's not necessary to own your own bees," says Breece.

The university, however, does mandate mentors for all the program's apprentices, who must pass a written test, demonstrate competency in the field, keep a log and earn education points. OSU is in the process of outlining the program's "journey" level, which likely will require some kind of service component, says Breece. The master level hasn't been mapped out but could assist OSU's own bee research, she adds.

Scientists nationwide have been confounded by colony collapse disorder, which appears to be the combined effect of parasites, viruses, chemical toxins and nutritional and genetic deficiencies. Modern farming methods and weather also are cited as factors in the phenomenon of entire hives dying off swiftly and unexpectedly.

After researching colony collapse disorder as an undergraduate at University of Montana, Red-Laird founded the nonprofit organization Bee Girl to provide beekeeping education and assist hobbyist beekeepers. She holds classes around the Rogue Valley and works as a consultant, setting up hives and helping clients maintain their bees' health, often with the simplest techniques, such as leaving bees with enough honey for winter when they can't forage.

"I've never lost a hive over the winter," says Red-Laird.

Red-Laird helped Ashland resident Marge Bernard set up a hive early last summer, so the bees would stand a chance against the cold, wet season to come. Bernard, 53, planted numerous herbs — particularly mint — around the hives and expects the bees to pollinate her garden once she builds a home on the property.

"We don't really have enough bees to pollinate everything," says Bernard. "We need more bees in our environment."

Bees need a variety of nectar- and pollen-producing plants but especially love lavender, thyme, buckwheat, lupine, penstemon, California poppies, goldenrod and coneflowers, says Red-Laird. When a worker bee leaves a hive for food, it will feed on only one type of flower — whichever one it tasted first on that trip, according to Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine and author of several beekeeping guides. Because honeybees stick to one type of plant, they pick up and deposit only one type of pollen, making for particularly efficient pollination of crops.

"If you have an orchard or a garden or a small farm, your production will go up by 40 percent," says Red-Laird.

An avid gardener, Bernard had good reasons for keeping bees but derived unexpected pleasure simply by observing the hive's inner workings.

"They definitely have little personalities," she says. "We should study and learn from them ... because they've kind of got it figured out."

For more information, see www.beegirl.org and www.oregonmasterbeekeeper.org.

Share This Story