Bethe Bowman co-owns a restaurant in town and, together with her partner, lives in a quiet one-story home near Shadle Park.
If not for the tens of thousands of insects buzzing around, her house would appear remarkably similar to the row of brick homes surrounding it. But ever since she took a beekeeping class last February, she’s claimed ownership of about 100,000 honeybees she keeps in her backyard.
“I love it,” Bowman said. “People say you’re going to get bitten by the bug. And, I’m bitten by the bug.”
Every week, she slips into her bee suit and checks on her bees. She’s making sure there aren’t any mites on the bees and that the queen is laying eggs – if she isn’t, the worker bees could abandon her, a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. She’s also checking for honey.
“I’ve always been interested in bees since I was a little girl,” she said. “I just finally decided to do it.”
Bowman, along with many other local residents, is taking beekeeping classes in Spokane taught by members of the Inland Empire Beekeepers Association in partnership with the WSU Extension. Many do it to pollinate their gardens. Others want access to fresh honey. But some, like Bowman, do it to combat colony collapse, which could have up to an $18 billion effect on America’s agriculture economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“If you look at most of your fruits and vegetables, including seed production, all of those are dependent on pollination,” said Timothy Lawrence, assistant professor and county extension director of Island County WSU Extension in Coupeville, Washington. “There’s no doubt that the bees are an important factor in the variety of food that we eat.”
Lawrence travels the United States, studying honeybee colony collapse disorder and consulting with commercial beekeepers on how best to combat it. Mites, lack of habitat, and the over-industrialization of beekeeping accounts for billions of lost bees every year, he said.
And for the past decade or so, commercial beekeepers have had to make up those lost numbers by purchasing more honeybees every spring. This leads to increased prices for pollination and could mean a bigger hit to consumers.
“The colony starts to look unhealthy, there are bacterial infections, and the colony starts going downhill,” Lawrence said. “At a certain point, it can’t recover. Beekeepers have had to adjust.”
Beekeepers say there are more than 60 factors behind colony collapse, but the most important is the varroa mite, which sucks the blood of honeybees, weakening them and shortening their life cycle. Lawrence said mites have become resistant to traditional pesticides, leading to more cases of colony collapse and a public perception that the bees “are disappearing,” as he’s heard some people put it.
Researchers are working on ways to fight the varroa mite, which include newer pesticides and promoting better beekeeping practices. There are also experimental ideas, such as storing bees in apple warehouses during the winter. Lawrence said the carbon dioxide produced by the apples keeps the mite levels down and the bees docile so that they’re not breeding.
Joan Nolan teaches classes with the Inland Empire Beekeepers Association, and as a beekeeper for 40 years, she advises students on how best to care for their bees. Many people don’t understand that honeybees need a lot of honey to survive the winter – about 80 to 100 pounds per colony.
“The bees don’t freeze to death,” she said. “They starve to death.”
Albert Einstein is believed to have said that four years after bees become extinct, humans will as well. Lawrence said there’s no evidence Einstein actually said that, and, even if he did, it’s simply not true.
Still, he admits the world would be very different without honeybee pollination.
“We’re not going to starve, but we’re going to have a much less interesting diet,” he said. “A third of the food we eat, honeybees are responsible for.”
That’s why Bowman keeps coming back to her bees each week.
“I’m really into preserving the Earth and taking care of the Earth and animals,” she said. “We need to be stewards to the Earth and the bees. Somebody has to do it or else we’re going to be in trouble.”