Illustrations by Meghan Murphy
The University of Minnesota Bee Squad supports all bees and all levels of beekeepers. The Squad team engages in a compelling mix of scientific research and practical application. Founded by Marla Spivak, Bee Squad programs are designed to help novices bypass the trial-and-error stages of beekeeping, and get straight to the most efficient, successful management practices. While Spivak’s expertise on bees is sought far and wide, her Bee Squad addresses Minnesota beekeeping in particular, emphasizing the importance of developing a regional intelligence.
Because of the Bee Lab’s resources, the Squad has a unique opportunity to collect and analyze data from backyard beekeepers. Without their oversight, these accounts would be un-researchable, as each backyard beekeeper would report findings with different levels of experience, expertise, or varying methods of observation. The Squad collects information much as the bees themselves do—from diverse sources and a sizable geographic range—and the Squad has well defined systems of communicating and processing the information collected. In the future, they imagine a database accessible to all beekeepers, where anyone can input data, and immediately discover how it fits into wider beekeeping trends.
To see the Bee Squad in action, coordinator Becky Masterman invited me to accompany her to a Bee-Mentorship client—in this case, the Somerset Country Club. Piled in the Bee Squad car, along with more bee suits, buckets of pine and cedar sawdust for the smoker, extra frames, notebooks, and hive tools (the car is extra storage space as they wait for funding for a new facility,) I bombard Becky with questions before we reach the Somerset Country Club.
What are her goals for the future of the business? I ask. Her first answer is expansion. She wants to get big enough so that the cost of their services can be taken down significantly. “I want the classes on hive management to be like yoga classes—you drop in when you want when you can—and pay an affordable price.” Home visits from the Squad might function like hair salon appointments: you choose your stylist, your specific needs, and pay according to the products, time, and particular services used.
Becky visits The Somerset Country Club every few weeks to advise golf course superintendent James Bade, his daughter Lily, and Brian Smith, the Home Apiary Help customer who sponsors the country club bees. I watch as Becky checks for brood, makes sure each of the two hives has enough room (they don’t; she switches a few boxes around,) and puts the hives back together again. But this isn’t only about managing; she is also teaching beekeeping. She answers every and all questions, consults her clients to make sure they understand why she makes the decisions she makes. The clients ask questions about how to check for brood, why a queen might be missing, how much more honey will be produced this summer and fall. Becky offers nine year old Lily a taste of honeycomb.
Tasting honey is be an important part of the Bee Squad’s work—after all, it’s hard not to love bees after digging your finger into a warm comb of delicate, minty basswood honey, or neon yellow honey that tastes like cotton candy. “Most people are in it to help pollinators, not to get honey. I think they’ll be shocked when we present them with hundreds of pounds of it anyway,” Becky says. Yes, if honey was money, the Squad’s programs would already be well-funded. Bees are generous creatures, and if you keep, or manage, bees, you will have honey.
I ask Becky what she most wants to get across to her mentees. Becky answers that she wants to convey the “best management practices for the health of the colony.” She says the Squad is relatively strict about keeping to the beekeeping standards that have been tried and tested true by Marla Spivak and the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. The Squad seeks to standardize certain practices based on what they’ve proven to work best.
Honey bees are not native to the United States; they were brought over in straw skeps by the Spaniards in the 1800’s. Now, 33% of US crops depend on the honeybees for pollination. Honeybees are kept everywhere in the US, but large-scale beekeeping operations truck their bees across the US, following the blooms from California almonds in February, to Florida oranges in spring, then to Georgia peaches and Maine blueberries, and finally out to the midwest where the bees “summer” and make honey on an abundance of alfalfa and clover.
But small scale beekeepers—hobbyists, enthusiasts, environmentalists—keep their bees in the same place all year, and this means, in the case of Minnesotans, extreme winters and quick, humid summers. With our history of beekeeping going back thousands of years it’s hard to imagine there being one “correct” or “best” management for bees. But today the bees are being threatened from every angle—from pesticides, to diet, to loss of habitat, to being overworked—so it is has become essential to hone in on a “correct” or “best” way to manage bees, rather than to experiment and risk further tragedies.
Becky, who left the world of bees after completing her PhD under Spivak, returned to bees ten years later to find them in a much more dire state than she’d left them. Back at the University of Minnesota Honey House headquarters, Becky shows me comb that the graduate students had been looking at earlier. There are pollen cells that have been sealed over with wax. These, she said are cells of pollen so contaminated the bees won’t eat it. They entomb it instead. Honey bees, who have much the same behavior as they did thousands of years ago, have developed this new practice of sealing over poisoned food only in the last ten years—when it became impossible for most bees to avoid collecting contaminated pollen in a given landscape.
With our history of beekeeping going back thousands of years it’s hard to imagine there being one “correct” or “best” management for bees. But today the bees are being threatened from every angle—from pesticides, to diet, to loss of habitat, to being overworked—so it is has become essential to hone in on a “correct” or “best” way to manage bees, rather than to experiment and risk further tragedies.
Some scientists are content with distributing their work to colleagues and in seldom-read scientific journals, but the Bee Squad team are scientists who take responsibility for putting the results of their lab work into action. I credit the bees for this activism. There really is love between a beekeeper and her bees. And while scientists need to be somewhat dispassionate about the subjects of their investigations, I see absolute passion for bees in each scientist-squad member I meet.
The Bee Squad has a clear and speciﬁc philosophy, but it strikes me that they are really working to bring together different ideologies on how we human beings should proceed in the face of deteriorating environments. They acknowledge, rather than devalue or destroy, our diverse ways of life. Here’s a small sample of the squad’s newest beekeepers: a self proclaimed “hippie” from Washington State, a museum, an air force pilot, a suburban teenager, a golf course, and Aveda, an international corporation for hair and body care products. Perhaps this world-wide bee “crisis” is an opportunity after all.
Bridget Mendel is a writer, artist, and beekeeper living in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on the intersection between community, environment, and art. Bridget is interested in discovering and writing about the diverse ways individuals and communities are approaching the world-wide pollinator crisis, from research, education, and activism, to simply planting flowers.