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Local beekeepers’ alliance encourages bee conservation amid commercial beekeeping losses

Angel Russell

Bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the world’s food supply, but the honeybee population has been declining rapidly throughout the last twenty years, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. 

A local Facebook group called the Central Coast Beekepers Alliance SLO is working to help the honeybee population.

“So this is my bee yard or apiary, is the professional term for where we keep bees,” said Erin Holden, the president of Central Coast Beekeepers Alliance SLO. She takes care of more than twenty different honeybee colonies.

Holden's group hopes to encourage people to get into beekeeping, and the group also provides resources for people to remove hives from their homes without killing the bees. 

“Commercial beekeepers are the ones who are really out there helping pollinate our food sources," Holden said. "For a backyard beekeeper, you’re probably not making a big impact in the food industry, but the small person does keep the industry going.”

According to a report by the Bee Informed Partnership, commercial beekeepers in California reported a loss of 30 percent of their colonies in the year 2020.

Holden said there are a couple reasons honeybees are struggling: one is the near-constant state of drought facing California, with reduced water affecting the plants bees use to collect nectar. Another growing threat is the Varroa Mite, a pest that is ravaging bee colonies around the world. 

“The biggest threat to our bees at this point is the Varroa mite," Holden said. "It’s a little, tiny mite that feeds on every life stage of the bee. So anywhere from them being a larva, to a pupa to an adult bee.”

Holden said the parasites feed off the fat of the bees, and slowly weaken them. The mites can also transmit a virus called Deformed Wing Virus. 

“Which can literally cause a bee to be unable to fly and out foraging for nectar," Holden said. "So the Varroa Mite is something we have to be on top of as beekeepers.”

Another problem in the bee world is people destroying hives that show up on their properties.

“If they are way up high in a tree and they are not bothering anybody, I’d say just leave them alone,” Atascadero beekeeper Michael Lindsey said. 

If a beehive is in an area near your house that is too close for comfort, and you call a company to remove them, but Lindsey said make sure to ask what method they use to get rid of the hive. 

“They may come and spray a pesticide and it kills the bees," Lindsey said. "Then bees in the neighborhood like in a tree somewhere, they will come and rob out that hive that got sprayed with pesticide. Then they will take that pesticide to their hive and then it will kill those bees.”

There are several companies throughout SLO County who can remove a hive, but Lindsey encourages using ones who gas the bees and try to rehome them instead of killing them. One you’ve noticed a hive that you want gone around your home, Lindsey said, don’t wait too long on addressing it.

“Because if they stay a long period of time, they will build a lot of combs, store a lot of honey," Lindsey said. "There will be a lot of bees and it will be a much bigger project.”

Holden said its not a good idea to try to take care of removing a hive without professional help, especially since some bee hives can be Africanized honeybees- also known as “killer bees.” 

“They are very aggressive. So you will have a lot of bees coming at you to sting you," Holden said. "They chase you longer if you’re trying to get away from them, they are much more persistent and they will travel farther to attack you.”

Holden said while honey bees sting to defend, killer bees mobilize as an entire colony if their hive is attacked. But while their temperament has earned them a bad reputation, Africanized honey bees do serve a useful function, since they also pollinate plants.

If a bee comes into your car, or buzzes around you out in public, Holden said stay calm and just wait until the bee flies away. 

“Is it okay to kill any bug? They all have a purpose,” Holden said.

If you are stung, get the stinger out as soon as you can. Lindsey said using something with a sharp edge, like a credit card, to scrape out the stinger should do the trick.

“The stinger on a honeybee, it's barbed like a fish hook," Lindsey said. "So when a stinger goes in, the barb keeps it in and the bee pulls away and it leaves that stinger in you with a venom sack, and that venom sack keeps pumping venom into you.”

Lindsey said despite the unwanted stings or hives popping up in the wrong places around your home, honeybees are the world’s smallest agricultural workers, pollinating 80 percent of U.S. grown crops.

Saving the bees, Lindsey said, means saving the food that we get to enjoy.

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