Did you know that the U.S. celebrates National Honey Bee Day? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and 53 countries are also supporting an initiative to celebrate World Bee Day on May 20. Why all the fuss about these tiny, albeit hardworking, insects? The answer is simple — there is a critical need to raise public awareness of the key role bees play in pollination and the current threats to their existence, and to encourage farmers and consumers to make “pollinator-friendly” choices.
Over the last decade, the population of bees has been declining at alarming rates. In fact, many types of bees will soon be extinct unless action is taken. North Carolina State University (NC State) is doing something about this through their:
- Outreach to beekeepers;
- Research on improved bee management; and
- Instruction on beekeeping.
Bees are Essential
According to the FAO, there are more than 20,000 species of wild bees that are critical for biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem. But the FAO refers to honey bees as the “most famous” pollinators, as they are instrumental in pollinating over a third of the world’s fruits and vegetables. In the U.S. alone, over $15 billion in crops are pollinated by bees.
Honey bees also, of course, yield honey, about $150 million worth annually in the U.S. alone. Anyone who’s watched Winnie the Pooh can immediately envision a pot of “hunny,” but very few realize the effort that goes into it. According to the FAO, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of honey takes 4 million flower visits, with a single honey bee visiting about 7,000 flowers a day. That’s certainly arduous work! Let’s keep that in mind the next time we enjoy a spoonful of honey with our tea or oatmeal.
Bees are the best pollinators, and serve an indispensable function in the world. After all, “[a] world without pollinators would be a world without food diversity – and in the long run, without food security,” said José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General, last year at Slovenia’s national beekeepers’ festival. In fact, the FAO considers bees vital to a key Sustainable Development Goal. “Without bees, it would be impossible to achieve FAO’s main goal, a world without hunger,” said da Silva.
Bees in Danger
Unfortunately, bees are under constant threat from many factors, including pesticide use, climate change, land-use change, pests and diseases. Recent figures included in a CNN report show just how dire the situation is. In just 12 months between April 2015 and April 2016, beekeepers in the U.S. alone lost 44 percent of their colonies. During that same time, beekeepers in the UK lost almost 17 percent of their colonies. These are not the only two countries facing a decline. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme warned of a global decline of honey bees, with China, Japan and Egypt joining the rank of countries facing a decline.
Hundreds of species of bees in North America and Hawaii are in fact facing extinction, according to a recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity.
How can we stave off further bee losses and threats to their very existence?
Suggested preventative measures for policymakers include: (i) offering farmers and landowners incentives to ensure their land is a good environment for bees and other pollinators; (ii) encouraging the practice of Integrated Pest Management, which would minimize the use of pesticides and risk to bees; and (iii) strengthening governmental research programs.
On an individual level too, of course, we can all take steps to help protect bees, such as growing plants that bees like, refraining from using pesticides in our yards and gardens, and buying local honey to support local beekeepers. Better yet, how about becoming a beekeeper!
NC State & Bee Downtown Helping Bees
NC State and Bee Downtown are doing their part to help save bee populations and, by extension, the environment.
NC State is not the only U.S. university offering beekeeping courses, but it created a bee buzz recently, and literally, when its Centennial Campus became the home of almost 150,000 honey bees. The new community apiary was installed, and will be managed, by Bee Downtown, a business started by Leigh-Kathryn Bonner in her junior year at NC State. Bonner is an alumna (BA ‘15), who majored in international studies and double-minored in nonprofit studies and Spanish.
The apiary is Bee Downtown’s first community apiary, and consists of 7 hives, which can accommodate up to 60,000 bees each, as the population grows in the spring and summer. According to NC State News, the campus is “pollinator-friendly,” so the bees should thrive in their new environment. Justin Maness, Bee Downtown lead beekeeper and NC State alumnus (BA ‘13), who majored in horticultural science and minored in agricultural business management, is hopeful that the new apiary “will create opportunities for tours and other forms of pollinator-related education,” reported NC State News.
The new community apiary is the product of a collaborative effort. Bonner convinced Bandwidth, a campus-based communications technology company, to sponsor the hives. Once a main sponsor was lined up, the Centennial Campus Partnerships and Industrial Alliances (CCP) stepped in to secure a campus location for the apiary, more corporate sponsors, and sponsorships from within NC State — SOUL Garden, an on-campus organic garden established and operated by students, NC State’s Institute for Nonprofits and the NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative.
“This project brings together the research, teaching and entrepreneurial strengths of NC State, using Centennial Campus as a proving-ground platform,” said CCP Director Leah Burton in a statement. “We look forward to the buzz the new apiary will create.”
NC State, the Source of Inspiration
Bee Downtown aims to help restore the dwindling honey bee population, which is of great concern in North Carolina, a state largely dependent on farming. TUN spoke with Bonner and Maness to find out what inspired them to take on the project of saving bees.
Both of them took ENT 203, An Introduction to the Honey Bee and Beekeeping, at NC State. Bonner credits their success to Professors John Ambrose and David Tarpy. Bonner believes that “so much of the mission and vision of Bee Downtown comes from our time with both of these brilliant men.”
Ambrose taught the introductory beekeeping course to more than 5,000 students, including Bonner, over 20 years at NC State. “Dr. Ambrose was a huge part of why I started Bee Downtown,” said Bonner. Ambrose was receptive to Bonner’s idea for Bee Downtown and supported her through the various stages while she was a student. He became almost like a grandfather to her, and Bonner hopes to keep his legacy, his passion for bees, alive through Bee Downtown.
Maness took the introductory course with Tarpy, who has taught at NC State since 2003 and runs the NC State Bee Lab. “Dr. Tarpy has been one of our biggest advocates since we got started,” said Bonner.
Bonner also received tremendous support from campus-wide NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative, which helped her turn Bee Downtown from a “passion project” into a business by:
- Providing her with mentors, classes, equipment and space that she could use to develop her business;
- Preparing her for Lulu EGames, the biggest NC State startup competition, which got her the prize money she needed for initial funding; and
- Awarding her a fellowship after she graduated, so she had a stipend and continued access to mentorship from “some of NC State’s most brilliant minds like Raj Narayan and Tom Miller.”
Bonner’s family has a long history with NC State — her grandfather, mother and all her brothers attended the university and benefited from its rich agriculture programs, while her uncle Jerry Flanagan, a renowned beekeeper, was also Ambrose’s student — so it is an honor for her to be involved in the new apiary. It is indeed “a dream come true” for Bonner.
“NC State and agriculture are the core makeup of my family, so to bring agriculture to Centennial Campus to honor the foundation this wonderful university was built upon, and also my family’s history at the university, is a dream come true. I’m honestly a bit at a loss for words. Every time I see that apiary, I will see the 5,000 students Dr. Ambrose taught that now know about honey bees, the brilliant Bee Lab Dr. Tarpy is running, the embodiment of ‘Think and Do’, and a university that cares more for their students than any other college in the country. NC State is a special place and I am proud to be a part of the Wolfpack.”
Glowing words indeed for NC State! Maness also places credit where it is due — NC State’s remarkable program and supportive environment.
NC State was where my passion for the environment and honey bees began. I was surrounded by amazing professors and students in my program who radiated knowledge about all aspects of horticulture. When I graduated I was determined to make a positive impact on the local community and environment.
Maness hopes that the new apiary will serve to educate others. “I hope that with this new NC State community apiary we bring more attention to the importance of our pollinators and provide a fun and immersive experience with an insect that offers so much for agriculture and our way of life,” he said.