Oh, honey: Utahns helping bees survive by being backyard beekeepers

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 4:27 p.m. MDT

Frank Whitby handles bees on the beehive on the roof of the Salt Lake City Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Monday, Aug. 2, 2010.

Matt Gillis , Deseret News

As the Beehive State, Utah has a historic connection with bees and honey. In the past few years, interest has also surged in beekeeping as a hobby. Perhaps it's due to the tough economy and the natural foods movement, which have also spurred people to plant gardens, home-can and raise chickens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are between 139,000 and 212,000 beekeepers in the United States. Most are hobbyists with less than 25 hives.

Backyard beekeepers say they do it for the wonderful honey, because it's interesting and fun, and to help support the bee population, which has been declining.

"If you want to save the world, be a backyard beekeeper," said Frank Whitby, a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Medicine and amateur beekeeper. As Salt Lake City's official beekeeper, he cares for two hives on the roof of the downtown library along with a group of Boy Scouts. He also has hives in his back yard, in a community garden and on property in Alta and Heber.

The idea of beekeepers saving the world might sound a bit dramatic, but bees are the unsung heroes of the world's food supply, and their declining numbers are a cause for concern.

An estimated one of every three bites of food is dependent on pollination provided by bees, said Gwen Crist of Slow Food Utah. That includes fruit and nut trees, melons, vegetables and field crops such as alfalfa. Slow Food Utah, which supports local, sustainable foods, hosted a Honeybee Festival last month to draw attention to the importance of bees. Beekeepers such as Whitby spoke in workshops, and bee-related purveyors had booths showing honey products, books and beekeeping information.

"Bees are really in trouble now, with diseases and Colony Collapse Disorder," said Crist. "From a food perspective, we would like to see the preservation of bees. From a flavor perspective, bees add to our diversity of food with more flavor and variety, and of course, honey tastes good."

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, the number of managed honeybeehives is half of what it was in the 1950s. Beginning in 2006, beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives. This mysterious phenomenon has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder, where worker bees abruptly disappear from their hives.

Scientists have advanced several theories about the causes: pesticide use, disease, environmental changes, genetically modified crops and the system of shipping bees around the country to pollinate large one-crop fields, such as the almond groves in California.

Whatever the reasons, Whitby and Crist said people can help honeybees survive — and thrive — by keeping their own backyard hives, or by planting native plants that are good sources of nectar or pollen for bees to feed on.

You don't have to live out in the country to have a beehive, said Whitby. "The urban environment is perfect place to keep bees. There's a diversity of plants to forage around in the city, as opposed to large agricultural fields of one single crop. I encourage people to keep bees wherever you live."

About 200 people attended the recent workshops offered at the Honeybee Festival, and many of them said they already have hives.

Some younger beekeepers have turned a hobby into a family business. Thirteen-year-old Nathan Huntzinger of Logan said he and brothers, Sam, 12, and Ben, 9, started raising bees as part of a home school project when he was 8 years old. Their dad, Craig Huntzinger, works in the USDA Bee Lab at Utah State University.

"Then we had lots of honey and thought what do we do with all of it?" Nathan said. "So we decided to sell it at the farmers market. We had to get all the licenses to do it, so then we decided to do all this other stuff, too."

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