At what point does the conversation around local food veer from important to ridiculous?
As I was fillings bags of bulk ingredients on a recent trip to New Seasons, I overheard an earnest conversation that brought this question to mind. A young couple was staring at the bulk honey dispenser. After several moments of silence, one turned to the other and remarked, "Hmm, Northwest Honey--is that local enough?" More silent staring ensued. Upon seeing that the honey originated in Eugene, they decided that whatever requirements they'd set were satisfied and started filling their container. I didn't know the context for that conversation, but I imagine if someone else had overheard it, her eyes would have rolled towards the back of her head. And truly, the discussion did seem a bit silly. What's next? Asking from which specific hive the honey was harvested?
A sneaky eavesdropper, I found myself nodding along, and even wondering if Eugene was local enough. Honey, like wine and coffee, is intimately linked to its terroir. Most of us wouldn't buy unlabeled wine from China, but that's exactly where much of the honey on supermarket shelves is from, unless specifically labeled otherwise. And this is a sticky situation, as much of this so-called honey is simply liquid sweetener, as close to real honey as Stevia.
While I'll never know the couple's true reasons for questioning the honey's origins, I was encouraged by their discussion. If you've shopped for honey recently, you may have noticed a few new options. Now, nestled beside the ubiquitous golden honey-bear, are honey containers that prominently feature their contents' origins, including the city, and, in some cases, the neighborhood. In urban areas across the United States, small organizations are maintaing rooftop hives, creating small-batch honey, and educating consumers on how to keep and maintain hives in their own backyards or rooftops. These dedicated beekeepers understand, as one beekeeper shared with me, "that there’s something incredibly exciting and sexy about beekeeping.” Sexy, sure. And vital to our world's agricultural system.
Bees are integral to our food supply. They pollinate nearly 400 crops, and through this pollination, create an excess of honey. Every week I read a new article about the health of our nation's honeybee population, including startling reports that one third of our nation's honeybees died this past winter, part of an ongoing trend for the past 6 years. There is numerous debate about what's causing this "colony collapse"; the potential list of culprits includes pesticides, a lack of genetic diversity, and a country run--and fed--on monocrops. Unlike Europe, the United States has not banned a family of pesticides proven to be contributing to this collapse--neonicotinoids--because the USDA and EPA feel that it's impossible to tease apart the multiple factors that are contributing to the ongoing hive collapse.
It's not an understatement to say that bees are one of the most important animals for our agricultural survival: their little black and yellow bodies encapsulate a variety of pivotal issues in our global food supply and security. And the damage that's inflicted on our food system impacts bees as much as their human keepers. After all, "the same drought that left Midwestern corn fields parched and wilting also dried up wildflowers and starved the bees." But the plight of the bees, and their importance, is not going unnoticed. Backyard and urban hives are now being used as tactile and edible educational tools, tangible examples of just how closely nature is interlinked with our food supply.
The branding, models, and strategies of these regional beekeepers are as varied as their resulting honey. Portland's Bee Local has placed hives on local grocer New Seasons' rooftops, and on the roof of Salt and Straw, a local ice cream store with a nationwide cult following. Standing in line for an ice cream cone, this proximity to the hives pushes the boundaries of how local honey can be. Sure, other ice cream stores use local honey, but how many stores concoct ice cream flavors with honey that's literally harvested above the head of the employee offering you your fifth tasting spoon? This is education via your tastebuds.
Along with Bee Local, urban apiaries engage the modern backyard homesteader, creating lesson plans and offering tools and resources. Corky Luster of Seattle's Ballard Bee Company is amenable to several situations: you can offer your backyard as a host site, but with no requirement to actually bee-keep, or you can consult with him to truly maintain your own hive. Meg Paska of The Homestead at Seven Arrows (you might know her as the Brooklyn Homesteader) and Chase Emmons of Brooklyn Grange have worked for several years to foster an inclusive and collaborative bee keeping community in New York. They are in the midst of running an intensive beekeeping apprenticeship program, with the goal of fostering other career beekeepers. San Francisco's City Bees literally has hives scattered across the city, from locations on top of Bi Rite Market to apiaries on San Jose's Fairmont Hotel.
In 2004, Michael Thompson, Stephanie Arnett, and Tim Brown created Chicago Honey Co-op, a certified agricultural cooperative that's 35 members strong. These members care for hives, and share in a percentage of the honey at the end of the season. Each member attends meetings and helps in marketing, selling at the farmers market, or maintaining the hives. And then there's Seattle's Urban Bee Company, which features not just educational classes, permaculture design consultation, a honey CSA, and hives around the Seattle, but honey delivered by bike! (As they share on their website, "if a bee were human-sized and rode a bike, it would bicycle 1440 miles each day, carrying 72 lbs of nectar for half that distance. After 3 weeks of this it would die! Out of respect, however, for this marvelous effort of the bees, we deliver our honey by bike.")
Each of these unique models sprung up from passionate beekeepers who, once they started with a few hives in their backyard, couldn't imagine NOT keeping bees. Thompson proudly shared that beekeepers are "all eccentric in many different ways, but you can’t stop us; it's so rewarding." Paska was able to transcend her memories of painful childhood bee stings into a deep appreciation of bee's importance. "As I grew up and started getting into gardening, I began to understand they worked hand in hand with gardening, " she said. "Beekeeping involves an element of conquering your fear and self; it forces you to focus to clear your head and it causes you to be less fearful of things that are frightening to you.”
Bees and the honey they produce provide a lens through which you can intuitively understand the interconnectedness of our agricultural systems. On a small level, our own actions will effect honey quality and taste. If pesticides are sprayed or there aren't a great enough variety of plants for bees to pollinate, honey production drops and bees die. On a larger level, if these bee populations don't flourish, the plants that aren't pollinated can't survive, and this will have a ripple effect on our entire food system.
The founders of these honey businesses are beekeepers for a plethora of reasons, but ultimately, keeping bees and creating honey are ideal ways of illustrating to consumers their personal connection to an integrated food system.
Damian Magista of Portland's Bee Local Honey captures this sentiment:
"We’ve been out of control of our food for so long, and people want control of it again. They want to know their sources; they want to know where it’s from, and this is a really easy way for people to wrap their heads around it and see the loop--from honeycomb to table. People’s actions have a direct impact on the end product. If you’re spraying pesticides, that’s going to end up in the honey. It’s a really solid example to show people."
This "solid example" has never been more apparent or obvious than in light of the recent discussion surrounding colony collapse disorder. There are around 2.5 million managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. today, a decrease from 5 million in the 1940s. According to Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine, since 2006 around 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost. Bees are literally disappearing, and the state of our agricultural system makes it impossible to identify one main reason as to why.
First, let's clear one thing up: honeybees are not wasps. Wasps, including yellow jackets, are inadvertent pollinators. Whereas bees gather pollen and nectar for food, wasps are carnivores and eat insects. Though they sometimes collect nectar, this isn't their primary source of food.
Honeybees help to pollinate as much as 70% of the world's plants. These plants include blueberries, fruit trees, squash, and almonds. If you need a quick refresher, pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the flower's stamen (male) to the pistil (female). While plants can be pollinated by the wind or inadvertently through human contact, most plants are pollinated by bees, hummingbirds, beetles, and moths. Honeybees drink and store nectar, which eventually becomes honey. As they drink the nectar from a flower, their sticky legs and bodies get covered in pollen. When the bee flies to another flower, some of this attached pollen is transferred to that flower's stigma. From there, bees fly back to their hive, utilizing both the nectar and the pollen still on their bodies.
Once back at the hive, the nectar is transferred to another bee and stored on that bee's tongue until the liquid evaporates and honey is formed. The honey is then stored in a cell (you might recognize this as part of honeycomb) in the hive.
Michael Thompson of Chicago Honey Co-op says the timeline between nectar collection and honey is "so fast, you can't believe it." Typically, if they start a hive with three pounds of bees in April; the first honey will be ready to harvest as soon as July, and then will be continuously harvested throughout the summer. Corky Luster of Ballard Honey typically harvests around 5,000 pounds of honey each season.
A honeybee hive can house as many as 80,000 bees. Each hive contains a queen bee, the hive's largest bee and the only female that mates. Along with the queen bee, the hive is home to numerous male drones and worker bees. Magista estimates that there are 200-300 drones in a hive of about 60,000 female bees. It's common knowledge that a drone's primary purpose is to mate with the queen. Magista illustrates their limited use through this comical illustration: "In September, the bees will drag [the drones] out and pitch them out over the side."
Paska provided a more sympathetic view of a drone bee's importance to the hive. "Drones actually aren't useless--they carry the genetics of the queen, breed and give off pheromones; they also give the mites something to do." The mites Paska is referring to are called varroa, which lay eggs on bees and suck the hemolymph. Along with pesticides, the varroa mite is another contributor to colony collapse and the deterioration of bees' general welfare. "Varroa prefers drones", Paska says, "so I give the bees the opportunity to create as many drones as they need."
Worker bees will fly up to 2 miles from the hive, landing on plants that have the highest amount of nectar. Worker bees' varied tasks include pollen and nectar collection and storage, honey and honeycomb making, and larvae care. A recent article in City Living Seattle illustrated the adaptability of worker bees: “It’s the workers who decide on everything in the hive, including the rate of laying. If they sense there are not enough resources, they’ll stop feeding the queen as much, and that causes her to slow down her egg laying."
The queen lays these eggs in the honeycomb; eventually, the larvae hatch into bees. Worker bees live between 3 and 4 weeks during the summer season and as long as 6 months during the winter. And a queen, barring unforeseen circumstances, can live as long as 4 years and lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day.
Have you ever seen a swarm of bees in your yard? Swarms occur when part of the hive separates from the main hive and searches for a new place to set up camp. Thompson describes it as a "natural division of the hive, almost like a cell dividing." If the queen bee is getting weak, the hive senses that and prepares to make another queen. The larvae destined to become future queens are fed "royal jelly", a compound consisting of pollen, B vitamins, and fertility stimulants. The first queen to hatch kills all of the unhatched queens. Magista shares that "the older queen will rally her troops and take off with half the hive to form a new hive. It’s crazy to watch. They make a big cloud, drift, and form a cluster."
Bees, and beekeepers, face many hazards to the health and safety of their colonies. "Colony Collapse Disorder is a mix of everything", says Ballard Bee's Corky Luster. "Viruses, mites, weak genetics from the queens, bacterias, pesticides, everything--it really comes down to bees’ compromised immune systems. Systemic pesticides are part of the problem. I’m hearing multi generational beekeepers talk to me about collapses [they’ve never experienced before]."
Much has been written about the necessity to keep our agricultural system diverse. A system of monocrops and narrow genetic lines leaves our entire system susceptible to superbugs, natural disasters without safeguards, and systems that operate in isolation from nature. Honeybees are no different. Honeybee colonies are collapsing in our pesticide-laden, monocrop-dense agricultural system. A diverse diet and a strong gene pool are just as important to a honeybee's health as they are to any other animal. Yet most of our nation's honeybees are trucked to different states to pollinate vast monocrops of almonds, cranberries, and canola. One third of all honeybees in this country pollinate our almond trees!
Along with susceptibility to varroa, bees run the very real risk of ingesting pesticides like neonicotinoids and bringing these harmful chemicals back to the hive. Unlike certain kinds of pesticides, neonicotinoids (neonics) don't degrade quickly; they can be present for months after application. Because bees can fly as far as two miles from their hive to collect nectar, it's challenging, if not impossible, to have an area completely pesticide-free. Neonicotinoids can seep out through the nectar and pollen of monocrops like cotton and corn, and honeybees, while collecting pollen, will eat it.
Europe recently banned this class of pesticides for two years for further study, but officials at the USDA and EPA have said "that there was not enough evidence to support a ban on one group of pesticides, and that the costs of such action might exceed the benefits".
If those weren't enough risk factors, bees have a weak genetic pool. All of America's honeybees are nonnative, and according to Bee Local's Magista, descended from 472 queens. The most common honeybee is the Italian bee, Apis mellifera lingustica, which was introduced in the mid 19th century. In the 1920s, the US passed a law banning imports of new genetic material, leading to inbred bees pollinating our crops and providing our honey. Honeybees are apparently as "adverse to monogomy as they are to monocrops", says Grist writer Enrique Gili, citing a study from PLoS ONE. The overall health of a hive depends on a diverse gene pool with which the queen can mate. Researchers like Susan Cobey of UC Davis have started importing drone semen and germplasm from Russia and Southern Europe to improve overall bee stock and diversity.
The numerous factors that keep bees hovering above the line of total collapse are impossible to keep track of. When you view these factors as Corky, Damian, Michael, Meg, and Bob do, you start to understand how these small beekeeping businesses scattered across our country can have a large effect on our nation's food supply and health. As more and more backyards and rooftops begin to house bees, grow native species organically, and taste the results in each jar of honey, a viable ripple effect can grow against the negative global picture of honeybee health.
Most US cities are enabling this change to happen without too much paperwork. In Chicago, a residence or community garden is allowed 5 hives without a permit. In New York, the city has required bee keepers to register their hives since 2009, but it doesn’t regulate how many are kept in each neighborhood. Here in Portland, hives must be positioned 150 feet away from all neighbors, and if you have more than 5 hives, you must register with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
And the public is responding in turn. Last Christmas, Magista was completely unprepared for the response and ran out of honey ("I ran out of jars; I ran out of labels"). Meg's beekeeping class has 8 eager beekeeping apprentices. Neither Corky nor Michael have had to do much to promote their businesses: people come to them, excited to learn, host, and of course, enjoy the honey.
These programs offer numerous entry points to beekeeping and appreciating local honey. Beekeeping, no matter whether you participate by hosting a hive or just buying the honey, is a tangible and flavorful way to positively impact our local ecosystems and food cultures.
And for those who don't yet know that local, traceable honey exists, or why such a thing should matter, there's an increasing number of opportunities to learn. If you overhear a conversation similar to the one I heard at New Seasons, you might also find your ears perking up, and even nodding your head in agreement. Instead of shaking your head in bemusement, you may even chime in with "That honey is good, but have you considered buying [insert local honey organization here] or even hosting a hive in your own backyard?"