Saving bees necessary to feed the world

September 28th, 2015 by —

By LuJane Nisse

“I started into one winter with 50 hives,” Barry Cummings of Troy said. “After winter was over, I had zero” … emphasizing the statement with a zero made by his cupped hand and fingers.


Barry Cummings of Troy, ID, is not shy about handling his bees barehanded. He understands them knows, from experience, what is safe and what is not. (Kay Youngblood photo)

Barry Cummings of Troy, ID, is not shy about handling his bees barehanded. He understands them knows, from experience, what is safe and what is not. (Kay Youngblood photo)

That kind of loss would discourage anyone and who could blame them if they quit? But beekeepers are a different breed. They spend long hours with their strange and marvelous creatures and they develop a bond as well as a “never give up attitude.”

Cummings also comes by it somewhat naturally. You see, his future wife’s father, Lynn Youngblood (now of Palouse), enjoyed beekeeping as a hobby when they lived in Indiana. Getting interested in the bees would certainly give young Cummings a foot in the door, so to speak, to see his sweetheart.

Meeting up with Cummings last year was an interesting event. He came to Palouse to gather bees which had taken up residence in my neighbor Margo Wekenman’s garage. The swarm had grown to fill nearly all the empty space inside the walls of the garage. Cummings was able to find the queen and with a lot of time and work (several days, if memory serves) placed her in a hive he brought and worked to get the worker bees to follow. He put as many as he could into his empty hives and hoped the remaining loose bees would merge with hives in the area or maybe follow.


Barry Cummings of Troy, Idaho (back) takes a moment with his daughter Brittany and father-in-law Lynn Youngblood of Palouse, WA. (photo by Kay Youngblood)

Barry Cummings of Troy, Idaho (back) takes a moment with his daughter Brittany and father-in-law Lynn Youngblood of Palouse, WA. (photo by Kay Youngblood)

Getting access to the bees meant cutting the wall of the garage to expose the honey combs and the bees. It was painstaking work to make the cuts without major harm to the bees. With the knowledge he has of bees, he had to find and identify the queen bee before he had any hope relocating the colony. Special tools were used to remove the combs containing vital honey for the bees’ survival during cold winter months.

It is thought the bees in Wekenman’s garage are some of the swarm which attached themselves to a cute little yellow coupe at the 7th Annual Spring Barbecue and Hot Rod Gathering (2011) the Knuckle Skrapers group puts on each May in Palouse (coming up this Saturday – all day – come enjoy the fun).

The little yellow car was actually not part of the hot rod event that year, although it certainly could have been. “It was a 1930/31 Ford Model A Coupe; ’32 Ford Grille Shell, Early ‘Flathead’ motor, ‘chopped’ top, dropped axle, ‘bobbed’ rear fenders… known in the car community as a ‘traditional hot rod,’” according to Mike Milano, hot rod aficionado of Palouse.

The owners of the cute Yellow Coupe were from Plummer, Idaho, and had stopped by Palouse to check out the cars and grab a bite of lunch. They didn’t register for the event and planned to take off in the early afternoon. Plans often go awry and are always open to change however. This time the change was a swarm of bees taking up residence in their car.

Bees swarm a yellow coupe at the 2011 Knuckle Skraper Hot Rod Show in Palouse. (Mike Milano photo)

Bees swarm a yellow coupe at the 2011 Knuckle Skraper Hot Rod Show in Palouse. (Mike Milano photo)

“Witnesses saw the swarm flying over the cars parked in the show. One spectator said they saw them pause at one other yellow car parked in the show, before they turned and obviously fell in love with the coupe around the corner, Milano said. “The swarm’s queen started to move into the coupe’s passenger side door while the car’s owners were unaware and enjoying lunch.”

When the owner saw the bees covering the car, he called the police to see what could be done.

“Thankfully, a number of beekeepers are on call in the county for just such an event,” Milano said. “Area beekeepers work hard to rescue and relocate bees rather than having folks spray and kill them. I think we’re finally learning how important that is.”

As a little side note to this story, Milano said he bumped into the car’s owner some time later and learned he was stung on the arm while driving home. Oddly enough it was NOT by a bee, but by a hornet that had flown into the car hunting the bees while they tried to make the coupe their home.

But, we digress –

Cummings started beekeeping after finishing his degree at the University of Montana and he and his wife, Larissa, moved to northern Idaho in 2002 to work for the Idaho State Fish and Game – yep he’s the Game Warden, the one that will probably catch you at Idaho’s beautiful Spring Valley Reservoir fishing without a license if you dare make that move.

However, when Cummings is not out in the woods doing his “day job,” he is working at his favorite hobby – beekeeping. He added it now often costs him a lot more to keep the bees than what production brings in revenue. “A queen used to cost about $7,” Cummings said. “But they are $45 each now.”

You can buy the bees too but, according to Cummings, they now cost between $120 and $150 for three pounds.

With bees and hives out there to purchase, anyone can probably learn to be a beekeeper. Heaven knows there are lots of manuals and information on the web to teach anyone HOW. Even with the dedication, you’d have to work hard, invest a lot of time and money along with a whole lot of love for these complex insects. Most beekeepers will tell you it will cost more than you’ll make and warn you to not do it (notice, however, those warning you are still in the game).

The most frustrating and heartbreaking problems beekeepers face is the possibility their bees dying or disappearing during a virus outbreak or from, what some are calling, the “Colony Collapse.”

Cummings acknowledges this is a problem he has had to deal with. The first winter, he lost all of his bees, 40 hives – they just disappeared, he said. However, he does not buy into “colony collapse” as much as virus and mites being much more dangerous to bees.

Colony collapse became a common outcry among beekeepers during the 2006-7 season when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg from central Pennsylvania went to check his 400 hives one morning and found them empty. Actually the Queen was still at home but all the workers had vanished like they left to “work” and lost their way home. They were not lying dead on the ground and they were not just out doing their work close by. They never returned. It was as if they packed their bags and decided they’d had enough of all the hard work. Hackenberg was not the only one finding his hives empty, apiaries across the country had lost up to 90 percent of their hives that season. The phenomenon buzzed out great headlines in local and national news. The people of America became very well aware of bees and their importance to our food supply.

Bees are directly responsible for one third of the food we consume.

Apparently, colony collapse is not a new phenomenon. They have occurred from time to time for over a century. None, however, have come close to matching the collapse of 2006. Farmers feared for their crops and everyone feared for their food. You see, bees have been transported to farmers’ fields for years to pollinate crops. Without the pollination, crop yields become smaller, some fruits are misshapen and prices to consumers, of course, rise.

Lots of theories abound about why bees disappear or die in great quantities but none has been proven. Some think perhaps the pollution caused by cars and trucks are the villain. Some suggested cell phone towers were scrambling the bees’ brains. Others say it is the pesticides used on the crops with entomologists waggling a finger specifically at neonicotinoids, which chemically resembles nicotine. The neonics (as they are often called) are chemicals that circulate through a plant and reach the leaves or flowers where the bees work. The premise with this chemical is they cloud the bees’ brains and leave them hazy and short-circuit their ability to find their way home.

The European Union ordered a two-year ban on the use of neonics to study the effect it may or may not be having on their bees. However, France put on a similar ban as far back as 1999 – the disappearing bee problem did not stop.

Cummings doesn’t necessarily buy into colony collapse but says he feels bees are contracting diseases and mites from hauling them hither and yon. They pick up a virus or mite from another part of the country and bring it back home to share with their brothers, just like humans will contract disease from their travels and share with everyone they come in contact with back home.

The most common problem Cummings has had with his bees is and illness called Varroa or trachea mites. Jeffery Pettis, an Agriculture Department entomologist, testified before a House subcommittee that Varroa (commonly called Varroa destructor) is a modern honeybee plague.”

Pettis also mentioned that perhaps the tiny insects are simply overworked. They are routinely packed into their crates, stacked and lifted on to flatbed trucks by forklift and driven to the next county or clear across the country to pollinate crops. It is common practice now for farmers to rent bees and beekeepers have discovered it pays better than selling honey.

Bureaucrats in several federal agencies scratched their heads, re-read reports, letters, memos and finally decided the cause of the “colony collapse” was, um, simply all of the above. No one theory was given more weight than another and after much ado, as bureaucrats will do, the agency representatives determined a mixture of all the variety of factors presented was the villain causing the colonies’ devastation. Their report put no more weight on one cause over another.

All the hullabaloo of 2006 has died down now, however colonies of bees still die – for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, there has not been a mass dying of bees like was seen during the 2006-7 season. All would most likely agree the consciousness of human beings has been raised a few notches and people look at bees much differently than they did decades ago. Bees are no longer “those pesky, flying, stinging insects” but are revered as “those wonderfully interesting, intelligent beings that help bring us nutritious food.” (Don’t swat them anymore when they get in your house… open a window or door and let them go home. They really didn’t mean to disturb you.)

(A variety of sources were used to complete this article including information from the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine.)