Care To Borrow A Bee?

May 2, 2012

Honeybees have run into some trouble. Diseases, funguses and pesticides are just some of the factors scientists believe may be contributing to the decline of these insects nation-wide. But honeybees play a critical role in pollinating everything from the Washington apple crop to the flowers in your back yard. Ashley Ahearn reports on one booming business that’s bringing bees back to the urban environment. Care to borrow a bee?

You might call Dave Schiefelbein a honeybee trafficker.

Schiefelbein: "We left town on early early Friday morning and came back late late Saturday night with a pickup truck and a customized uhaul trailer."

A trailer full of California honeybees.

Schiefelbein: "We brought 250 packages, so that would have been upwards of 2 million bees."

Schiefelbein works for the Ballard Bee Company. Every year the company brings bees from the Sacramento valley of California up to Seattle and essentially loans them to homeowners in various neighborhoods 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.

Rafael Gallardo is about to become one of almost 150 hive hosts in Seattle. We’re standing in his backyard in the West Seattle neighborhood.

Gallardo: “Everyone’s really excited and no one’s raised any concerns and everyone’s really happy for us that we’re able to bring this into our community.”

Gallardo’s Polish Crested rooster looks on skeptically as Dave Shiefelbein 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.

Schiefelbein: "What I’m going to do is spray them with a little bit of water. That’s going allow me to slap the box down and all the bees will drop to the floor of the box and I’m going to walk over and dump them in the hive.”

The bees are noticeably peeved. They're still sleepy from their long car ride and the cool Seattle weather. But they seem to know what to do. They tumble into the hive and start inspecting their new digs. Amazingly, we don’t get stung.

And 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.

Schiefelbein: "You can see her in there. 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 they’ll feed and protect her 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.

Schiefelbein: “I’m going to pull that cork out and put a marshmallow in it 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 at that part. 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 love her, but her human host already seems to be head over heels for beekeeping.

Gallardo: “I already know that I like it 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.”

Business for the Ballard Bee Company has been good. They received about 200 applications for new hive hosts this year.

And they’re not alone. Urban hive hosting businesses are cropping up from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, BC and beyond.

Disease, mites, fungus and Colony Collapse Disorder have brought honeybee populations in the US down to about half of what they were in the 1940s.

But at least in the urban environment – honeybees may be coming back.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network