National Pollinator Month: How to support Northwest honey bees

Oregon

Pollinators are directly responsible for at least 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — June is National Pollinator Month in the United States and there is a swarm of reasons to celebrate the small-but-mighty creatures responsible for feeding the world.

Thousands of species fall under the category of “pollinators,” including beneficial insects like butterflies, ants, flies and beetles as well as birds, bats and small mammals.

But easily the most famous of all pollinators is the honey bee.

These tiny, year-round workers are the only bees that make honey. They’re extremely social: a single colony can be home to thousands of bees and a queen. Honey bees, along with other pollinators, are responsible for the health and success of our fruits, vegetables and essential crops like alfalfa that support our livestock industries.

A honey bee on nasturtium blossoms in Portland. (Courtesy of Portland Urban Beekeepers)

The same is true in the Northwest, which is famous for scenes of tulip farms, lush meadows, mountain wildflowers, flowering trees and sweeping farmlands — all of which wouldn’t exist without pollinators.

Farmers, foresters, land managers, landscapers, beekeepers, researchers, educators and homeowners across the region maintain active symbiotic relationships with pollinators, especially honey bees. Oregon is the only state in the country with a funded mandate to develop a pollinator health strategy thanks to legislation passed in 2015. There’s an entire program at Oregon State University dedicated to honey bees. There are also numerous organizations and clubs in the region focused on increasing awareness and driving progress toward a safer future for honey bees.

Oregon State Beekeepers Association

Portland Urban Beekeepers is one such organization. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to the education, advocacy and support for individuals who raise honey bees and people who want to support honey bees in the environment.

The group manages an apiary in North Portland. It’s essentially a garden that’s home to the club’s hives where members can spend time learning more about honey bees.

Jessica Anderson with Portland Urban Beekeepers explained beekeeping isn’t as simple as it was several decades ago when people would let a hive basically take care of itself. Honey bees are now considered livestock and, as such, require routine care and treatments for diseases.

Jessica Anderson with Portland Urban Beekeepers, June 24, 2020. (KOIN)

“There’s always new things coming up in beekeeping, there’s always new ways to do things,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a joke that if you ask three beekeepers a question you’re gonna get seven answers.”

But if there’s one thing beekeepers can agree upon, it’s the fact that we need pollinators.

“Setting aside the documented importance of biodiversity — we know biodiversity is important, we know the detriment to the lack of biodiversity — but even looking at it from a narrow point of view of just, say, human food supply: Bees are responsible as well as other pollinators for over 30% of the world food supply,” Anderson said. “That is one bite out of every three that we eat, a bee essentially did something that allowed that food to end up on our plate. So to think about what the result is if they are not around is pretty hard to fathom.”

Current ongoing threats to honey bee colonies in the Pacific Northwest and around the world are the use of pesticides and herbicides, colony collapse disorder and mites.

“There’s no question that pesticides are an issue to bees here and elsewhere,” said Anderson. “RoundUp, which is an herbicide, is the number one herbicide in the world but even that is believed to have an impact on honeybee digestion, which can make them vulnerable to infection.”

A honey bee hive in Portland. (Courtesy of Portland Urban Beekeepers)

Portland Urban Beekeepers maintains an active relationship with Multnomah County to discuss ways to lessen the impact on bees, such as by not spraying roadside blackberries while they’re in bloom since that’s when bees are collecting nectar, avoiding spraying in windy conditions since chemicals can blow into an area of bees and spraying herbicides at times when bees aren’t active.

As for mites, Anderson said it’s important to learn proper care and monitor how many mites are present in a hive to limit their impact.

“That’s a really important piece to monitor so that bees successfully winter through and make it to spring,” she said.

“One bite out of every three that we eat, a bee essentially did something that allowed that food to end up on our plate.”

Jessica anderson, portland urban beekeepers

One thing beekeepers and researchers aren’t particularly concerned about? The Asian giant hornet, AKA the “murder hornet.” Anderson said the species hasn’t been documented to be established anywhere in the Northwest, or even the United States. OSU’s Honey Bee Lab recommends against setting out traps for Asian giant hornets because good pollinators could fall victim to them. However, if you are confident that you have seen an Asian giant hornet or you suspect an attack on a beehive, then please contact the Oregon Department of Agriculture by clicking here or call 503-986-4636. If possible, take a picture of the suspect from a safe distance and upload it to the ODA reporting site listed above.

Flowers and bees in Portland. (Courtesy of Portland Urban Beekeepers)

So what can we all do to help ensure the future is bright for our pollinator friends?

If you have the space for it, Anderson suggests planting pollinator-friendly plants, especially native species. Turning a garden into a pollinator paradise is a matter of planting flowers of different shapes and staggered bloom times. OSU recommends planting bulbs, shrubs and trees along with larger blocks of flowers and leaving some bare dirt for ground-nesting bees, like the native metallic sweat bee.

Bees also need water to stay hydrated and healthy! Providing shallow water sources, such as a small lid with water and marbles for bees to rest on, can help them stay hydrated while they buzz about their work.

You can also learn more about native mason bees, which are popular with families due to their ease of care and inability to sting.

How to create a pollinator habitat

Another way to help bees (and pollinators in general) is to cut down on pesticides. Try visiting your local gardening center or nursery to learn more about alternative treatments. OSU offers a smartphone app featuring information on pesticides that can be accessed anywhere.

Buying bee products, such as honey, bee pollen and beeswax are great ways to support local beekeepers and, in turn, honey bees.

A honey bee on a nasturtium blossom. (Courtesy of Portland Urban Beekeepers)

And, if you’re interested in taking your commitment to honey bees a step further, you can learn more about beekeeping by joining a club like Portland Urban Beekeepers. The group holds monthly meetings (virtual for now) featuring beekeeping experts. Portland Urban Beekeepers also offers a “bee school” each year that lasts multiple months and caters to people who are thinking of becoming beekeepers. It starts this year on July 16.

Find a beekeeping association near you

The importance of the honey bee cannot be overstated. Without them, our world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. Happy National Pollinator Month — this month, and every month.

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