SEATTLE — You could say Dave Schiefelbein engages in honeybee trafficking.
It’s what he did last weekend, leaving town on early early Friday morning and coming back late late Saturday night with a pickup truck and a customized trailer full of California honeybees.
“We brought 250 packages, so that would have been upwards of 2 million bees,” Schiefelbein explains.
Schiefelbein works for the Ballard Bee Company. Every year the company brings bees from the Sacramento Valley of California up to Seattle and loans them to homeowners in throughout the city.
It’s called the hive-hosting program. The bees hang out for the summer pollinating the neighborhood plants and making honey. The homeowners get a cut of that honey, and the Ballard Bee Company takes the rest to sell in boutique grocery stores and at local restaurants.
But beyond just making honey, these insects play a critical role in pollinating everything from the Washington apple crop to the flowers in your back yard. In recent years honeybee populations have declined rapidly. Scientists and beekeepers say disease, mites and funguses are part of the problem.
And then there’s Colony Collapse Disorder, which scientists believe to be a major contributor to honeybee die offs. New research points the finger at one type of pesticide, though there could be other factors.
It’s perhaps not surprising then, that small urban beekeeping businesses around the region are tackling that problem on the local front - in cities like Portland, , Vancouver, B.C. and the San Francisco Bay Area- with hive hosting programs.
Rafael Gallardo is about to join the ranks of almost 150 hive hosts in Seattle. We’re standing in his backyard in the West Seattle neighborhood. He says people around here supported his and his girlfriend’s decision to have two beehives installed on their property.
“Everyone’s really excited and happy for us that we’re able to bring this into our community,” Gallardo says.
Gallardo’s Polish Crested rooster looks on skeptically as Dave Schiefelbein gets ready for a feat that could come straight out of a Three Stooges video. He’s attempting to move 10,000 bees out of a wooden box and into the nearby hive.
Watch 10,000 bees move from a box to their new hive. Schiefelbein crouches down with a spray bottle and squirts water through the screens on the side of the bee box. He says it keeps them from flying around as much. Then he knocks the box against the ground (the bees are noticeably peeved) walks quickly over to the empty hive and dumps them in - their little bodies tumbling over one another, buzzing angrily. They’re still sleepy from their long car ride and the cool Seattle weather and amazingly, we don’t get stung. Then comes the coolest part: Schiefelbein pulls out a wooden box the size and length of your ring finger. We can see inside through a screen. A huge, dark queen bee paces back and forth. She’s about to be introduced to her subjects. Some worker bees have already arrived to inspect her. “You can see her in there,” Schiefelbein says, intently focused on the angry-looking creature inches from his forefinger. “She’s bigger than the other bees, probably two thirds as big as the girls that are attending her. See how they’re already checking her out? Crawling up and down on the cage? They just need a few days to get used to her.” Getting “used to her” is a nice way of saying “she has to convince her new worker bees not to kill her.” And she’ll do this by emitting pheromones. Queen bees have the unique ability to use chemical messages to convert worker bees into loyal subjects. Then the worker bees will feed and protect their queen while she lays eggs all over the hive. At one end of the queen’s little chamber is a hole filled with a cork. It’s the only thing protecting this queen from her potentially hostile new subjects. Dave Schiefelbein removes it and replaces it… with a marshmallow. “…and by the time the attending bees eat through the marshmallow they’ll be introduced to the queen and she can emerge and the building of the colony can begin. If I just threw a queen in there that they were not used to, they would kill her.” This queen doesn’t have much time to convince her honeybee subjects to accept her, but her human host already seems to be head over heels for beekeeping. “I already know that I like it,” Rafael Gallardo says, “so it may be something that might become a long term hobby for us and we also reap the benefits and the environment reaps the benefits. You know, we get some honey and we introduce bees into our neighborhood.” Schiefelbein takes me back to company headquarters to meet Corky Luster, the owner of the Ballard Bee Company – who sort of accidently got into this line of work. “I thought, well we have chickens, let’s throw some bees in there and I thought, I’ll do two hives. And it’s turned into 135 hives.” Luster started the company three years ago and business is booming. He says they’ve had a couple hundred requests for hive hosts this year, and only accepted about ten of the applicants. But what about eating honey from bees that may be collecting nectar from a perhaps less-than-pristine urban environment? Luster says city streets add flavor. In France, honey marketed as “from the sidewalks of Paris” sells at a premium. “It’s kind of like wine, you get all these different tastes in your honey. It could be lavender from one yard or part of an apple tree from another and I think it’s far better tasting than some of the single variety honey out there.”
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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