Bruno Borsari squeezes little puffs of smoke out of an accordion-shaped box. "The smoke tells the bees that their hive is on fire," he explains in a lyrical Italian accent. Rather than trying to defend the hive with their stingers, the lightly-smoked bees busy themselves with sucking up as much honey as possible, preparing to abandon their home. "That is the secret to their docility," he says, waving the smoker around the hive.
Photo by Chris Rogers
After calming his bees with a few puffs of smoke, Winona State University Biology Professor Bruno Borsari pulls a frame from his beehive. Borsari's urban bees forage as far as Garvin Heights and Goodview as they store up for a Minnesota winter.
Prying loose parts that the bees have cemented with a resin-like excretion called propolis, Borsari cracks the lid of one of his hive boxes and carefully draws out a frame. The strip of wood and plastic is glittering with bees and filled with their handiwork: hexagonal cells that are at once incredibly uniform and mysteriously arranged. Some are glistening, half-full of honey, others hold larvae, and some hold the dusty pollen that is the bees' protein source. Special ones are reserved for the "royal jelly" that is fed only to future queens.
Borsari first saw a beehive as a child in Italy. His fifth-grade teacher was an amateur beekeeper and, sometimes, for a special treat, he would take Borsari and his classmates to see his hives. "We were doing something like this," Borsari says as he gestures to the honey-encrusted frame in his hand, "to show us bees, and I was fascinated. It is something that has really affected my life, because that is what made me want to study agriculture and then biology."
"My father has a hive, too. We're doing a daddy-daughter bee thing," explains Elena Herreid, a first-time beekeeper in rural Winona. "I didn't think that I would find bee politics so fascinating. It's a wonder to check up on them every week or so and see what new developments are happening." She adds, "Just like dogs or chickens, they have their own social interactions that we're not a part of, but we can observe."
Peering into the workings of the hive "is kind of like seeing the mechanics or insides of something," says Winonan Matthew Byrnes, who is also a new beekeeper. "We're seeing a part of them that they don't show to many people."
Byrnes ordered two pounds of bees and one queen through the mail this winter. He dumped the boxful of bees into its new home this spring, gave them some sugar-water to get going, and has been checking on them every couple weeks since then. That, essentially, is what beekeeping is: checking up on the bees every so often.
"Yeah, that is it," Borsari says. "You let them do their bee work."
There is a little more to it. Beekeepers look for certain things when they check their hives, like signs of disease or malcontent. Collecting honey is more involved, but much of beekeeping is just giving bees a place to live. It takes a certain amount of knowledge and financial investment, but a minimal amount of time, beekeepers say. "It's a lot less work than a dog or a cat or a chicken," Herreid explains.
Still, beekeeping is not without its challenges. Recently, Herreid's father's bees swarmed, meaning that much of his hive flew away. For whatever reason, the bees were unhappy with their living situation and started raising new queens. When the new queens hatched, most of the hive flew away with them.
Swarming can go both ways, however. By tracking foraging bees back to their swarm, beekeepers can catch independent colonies of honey bees. Beekeepers might gently cut off the tree branch on which a swarm is living, for instance, before knocking the colony off the branch and into a bee box.
Colony collapse disorder is a different matter. Countless hives across the country suffer from colony collapse each year, a mysterious, recent phenomenon in which nearly all of the bees in a hive leave and never come home. "Colony collapse is a complex cocktail of disorders," Borsari says. Like cancer, researchers are still trying to pinpoint the causes of colony collapse. According to Borsari, there is a growing consensus among researchers that a new type of systematic pesticide called neonicitinoids are a major cause, along with poor nutrition from the lack of plant diversity, other diseases, and stress.
On the other hand, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says, "Despite a number of claims in the general and scientific media, a cause or causes of colony collapse disorder have not been identified by researchers."
"Don't feel bad if your bees die," University of Minnesota Extension educators told Herreid during a beekeeping class. Even if she does everything right, there is a decent chance Herreid's bees might succumb to the mysterious disease, which is troubling experienced beekeepers across the country. "Everything is kind of like that, though," she says of the risk. "With chickens, you know, sometimes one doesn't come home and that's just how it goes. Even though there's hardship out there, the best thing would be to have more people keeping healthy populations of bees."
Bees in the city
Borsari, a Winona State University biology professor, has been keeping bees in central Winona for three years, and elsewhere for years before that. His hive sits behind a friend's rental house near Winona State University. No one has had problems with its current location, but last year the hive was at Borsari's house, where neighbors feared their grandchildren might be stung. Stings are always a possibility, Borsari says, but unless one is right in front of the hive entrance, they are rare. The bees seemed uninterested as Borsari continued to take apart their hive with his bare hands. Nevertheless, "I had to respect those concerns because you don't want to have someone living next to you who doesn't want to talk to you," Borsari says of his neighbors.
The city of Winona does not currently have an ordinance either banning or expressly permitting bee hives. Borsari has advocated for guidelines to be set, but says that the idea of a beekeeping ordinance was put on the back burner once the city began navigating the issue of frac sand regulation.
Strange as it may sound, cities may be one of the best places for bees to live these days, according to Borsari. "You would think that the country is the perfect place for bees, but there is nothing to eat in the country." Bees need a wide variety of flowers blooming in series from spring to fall in order to gather enough nectar to survive Minnesota winters. Crop fields are "a desert in terms of food for a bee," he says. Soy and corn do not attract bees and the crops that do — such as clover and alfalfa — are not enough, Borsari explains. "It would be like eating spaghetti everyday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You would get nauseated, debilitated."
Cities have a greater diversity of flowering plants that provide bees with healthier, more consistent source of food, according to Borsari. He adds that in the city, bees are less likely to be exposed to neonicitinoids. As beekeepers across the country flounder in the face of colony collapse, cities may have the best chance for saving the bees, Borsari maintains. "If we can raise an army of passionate urban beekeepers, there may be hope for the bees."