A few days ago, I spent my afternoon at a little living art party on the rooftop of the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum (WAM as we call it in these parts). Our view: a panoramic mash-up of the Twin Cities campus, the Mississippi River, and the Minneapolis skyline. Our hosts: WAM staff, the university Bee Squad and about 100,000 honey bees affectionately referred to as “the girls” since the majority of hives are made up of female worker bees.
The bad news is that bees are in trouble. They are disappearing at an alarming rate likely due to a number of baddies like pesticides, a loss of pollinator landscapes (i.e. food), and parasitic Varroa mites. Scientists are referring to this puzzling loss as colony collapse disorder and it’s a very big deal. You may not realize just how vital bees are to our health, environment, and economy. The current issue of TIME magazine is dedicated to the “Plight of the Honeybee” and inside details the story about a Rhode Island Whole Foods store that removed all the bee-dependent food from it’s produce section to show the impact of this loss. 47% of the produce was missing from their shelves, everything from apples and cantaloupes to squash, cucumber and almonds.
The good news is that hope is not lost. World-renowned bee expert, Marla Spivak is leading ground-breaking research at the U of M Bee Lab. Spivak and her team aim to help get bees “back up on their own six feet” through hygienic breeding that helps bees help themselves. There’s also the promising power of propolis, a tree sap bees use to seal cracks in the hive that also provides a natural defense. A collaboration between the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Medical School is investigating the antimicrobial and antiviral properties of propolis—studies have even shown that it’s highly active against HIV-1. Other projects look to landscape conservation and alternatives to pesticides.
Spivak also started programs like the Bee Squad to spread the knowledge from these discoveries to beekeepers (commercial and hobbyist alike) and average people like you and me. We may not all be able to set up a colony at home, but we can play our part in fostering healthy bees by planting bee-friendly buds like Russian sage or establishing nesting boxes for wild bees like the delightfully rotund bumble bee. The Bee Lab also hopes to establish a state of the art research and discovery center that would combine research, education and display gardens, taking their mission to the next level.
It was an afternoon of learning, and I left with a newfound respect for bees (and my sting-free life record intact). Honestly, could there bee a better subject to move onto after covering Sherlock Holmes, who famously retired to beekeeping at the end of his fictional life (inspiring a recent series of bestselling novels)? Quite apropolis.
… it was also an afternoon of puns.