A SWEET COLLABORATION

Tending to Nashville’s most-numerous and least-noticed livestock is a ‘honey’ of a job

  • On a sunny May morning, Rose Mary Drake was walking her dog in her Eastwood neighborhood. It seemed to be an ordinary day, but she soon encountered a very real threat to tens of thousands of lives.
         “I started seeing what I thought was smoke,” she says. “At first I thought my neighbor’s house was on fire, but as I got closer, I could smell pesticides. One of my neighbors was fogging his yard. I told him I lived just a few houses down and that I had beehives in my backyard. He said, ‘Oh, I’m just spraying for mosquitoes.’ I told him most pesticides that will kill mosquitoes will also kill bees, and in fact they’re even more effective against bees. He just said, ‘Well, I’m almost finished now.’
         “I went home,” Drake continues. “Throughout the day when I walked outside, I could smell pesticides. I don’t know if there was any harmful effect on my hives. I had two at the time; one has been a really strong hive and still is. The other was my weakest hive, so I decided to move it out to the country.”
         As an urban beekeeper, Drake knows firsthand the havoc that the cavalier spraying of pesticides can have on bee colonies. The two hives that were tucked away in her backyard contained approximately 80,000 bees. More than just an interesting hobby or a source of homegrown honey, the bees were also good neighbors, instrumental in the pollination of flower and vegetable gardens throughout the neighborhood. Their hard work benefits everyone, but one careless or uninformed human can bring on the death of an entire colony.
         Urban-based beekeepers face threats to the survival of their hives every day. The strongest defense is knowledge, whether it’s educating their non-beekeeping neighbors or beekeepers gathering together to swap advice and stories of their personal experiences. On a recent humid evening, a group of East Side beekeepers met for just that reason. Sitting around a table on the patio of Todd Cantrell’s Lockeland Springs home, just yards away from the two working beehives in Cantrell’s backyard, the group of men and women shared their personal experiences as tenders of East Nashville’s most-numerous and least-noticed livestock.
         “I grew up on a horse farm in Whites Creek, Tenn.,” Cantrell says. “My father’s uncle had beehives, and I can remember looking up at the hill that was dotted with 20 or 30 of them. I was fascinated by them and wanted to try it for myself. For many years, I traveled for a living, and I had to put off a lot of agricultural interests that I had. When I got off the road, beekeeping was something I really wanted to do. I didn’t go to any classes, but I read every book I could find on the subject from cover to cover. Then I started talking with people online. In 2006, I got my first two hives. They lasted a year and half and then died because I was learning.”
         That first lesson, on the precarious nature of tending and maintaining beehives, was an important one. Although beekeepers have dealt with hard winters, droughts, fungal infections, diseases, and parasites since the domestication of honeybees began over 10,000 years ago, bee populations began to decrease dramatically in the 1990s and into the 21st century. At first, losses by both commercial and hobbyist beekeepers were attributed to well-known factors such as urbanization, pesticide use, and the spread of invasive parasitic species. In 2006, the same year Cantrell began beekeeping, the decline in bee populations reached alarming proportions. The term “colony collapse disorder” came into common usage as beekeepers around the world reported the sudden die-out of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, often with no clear cause.
         Although the precise cause of colony collapse disorder remains a mystery, some of the primary suspects include the importation of invasive parasitic species, loss of habitat, genetic disorders in commercial honeybees due to overbreeding, the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or a combination of these and other factors. The dramatic decline in honeybee populations didn’t just raise alarm bells among commercial beekeepers and entomologists. Home gardeners also began to take note, as Holly Street resident Lee Tucker noticed in the spring of 2008.
         “My wife and I had a garden in our backyard,” Tucker says. “I started noticing there weren’t any bees. I did a Google search and found out about colony collapse disorder. The following week I went to a family reunion and overheard some relatives talking about their beehives. Low and behold, they were lifelong beekeepers. One had been doing it for 20 years and invited me to come see his hives. I had always been very afraid of bees. I had some very bad experiences as a kid, but seeing my cousins open their beehives up was an overwhelming experience. I got plans for a beehive online, built one, got a starter package of bees, and it just took off from there.”
         Tucker’s alarm over the declining bee population was a very real concern. An average bee colony can collect 66 pounds of pollen from flowering plants in one year. Although bees use a portion of that pollen as food for the hive, a significant amount is returned to the very plants they collect it from, resulting in widespread pollination and larger crop yields for farmers. Bees are considered essential for successful yields of apples, apricots, avocados, blackberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cucumbers, mangos, peaches, pears, plums, pumpkins, various types of squash, turnips, watermelon, and many other fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
         For urban farmers Mia and Marc Cover, beehives were the perfect complement to the garden and chicken coops they maintain at their Inglewood home. “I wanted to keep bees for years,” Mia says, “but it took me five or six years to talk Marc into it. We’ve lived in our house since 2003, and I’ve seen a decrease in the number of native honeybees and bumblebees. It was important to get pollinators back into our garden. I finally got Marc to agree, and last year, I attended a class with the Nashville Area Beekeepers Association. We started out with two hives and are now up to five.”
         “After we got the bees last year, the crop from our garden was so much better,” Marc adds. “There was a huge difference. The bees were obviously doing their job. The thing about having bees is that whatever you expected, it’s so much more. Being a person that grew up in Los Angeles, I wasn’t an outdoor person. Now I find myself going outside every morning, sitting in the yard and just watching them.”
         Cayla Wilson is another avid East Nashville gardener who was attracted to beekeeping for practical reasons, but has found the experience to be far more than she expected. “I worked on a local farm some last year, and I noticed a decline in pollination and was very concerned about it,” Wilson says. “My close friend Marie had been interested in bees for years, but never had the land to keep them on. We decided to become partners in beekeeping, and we got our first hive a month ago, so we’re baby beekeepers. It has been a radically transformative experience.
         It’s almost like a spiritual event watching them work.”
         That sense of wonder at the “Zen” of beekeeping is echoed by Tucker. “The number one thing for me with beekeeping is I finally understand the seasons,” he says. “You know in February, they’ll start bringing the yellow pollen from oak trees. You hit March, and you’re driving to work, looking at other people’s yards’ wondering which flowers are in bloom. In late spring, you’re walking through the golf course looking at the clover and wondering when it will be done for the season. In fall, you wonder if there’s going to be enough moisture in the air to get a good nectar flow. I feel way more grounded to the seasons because of the bees. You start to look at the world through their eyes, and you see the connections between things that we ignore every day.”
         Although living and working with bees can inspire their keepers, it’s perhaps a different story with neighbors who may view the presence of a hive as merely a source for thousands of stinging insects. That’s why education and communication are so important.
         “My neighbors all know I have bees,” Cantrell says. “They bring their kids over to watch them from a distance. People walk right next to them, and I have never had a problem. The most important thing is communicating with your neighbors. Living in an urban neighborhood means I should be a good steward of the bees — and it also helps if all your neighbors get a jar of honey.”
         Tucker agrees with the importance of communication and education of his neighbors. “We’re open with it to our neighbors and try to educate them about the bees,” he says. “Unless they see the hives, most people don’t even know we have them. The most stressful time for me is during swarm season. The last thing you want to have happen is for a swarm of bees to end up moving into someone’s house. You’re technically not liable, but you’d feel guilty about it and you want your bees back.”
         Although swarming, the method by which new hives are established, is actually a time when bees are less likely to sting, the sight of 20,000-30,000 bees hanging from a tree limb or the corner eve of a house can be an alarming sight. Local organizations like the Nashville Area Beekeepers Association (nashbee.org) play an important role in educating the public about bees and beekeeping, as well as providing a central point of information for both experienced and beginning beekeepers and cosponsoring area classes with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the University of Tennessee.
         While beekeeping is not a cheap hobby, it is one that is relatively easy to begin in an urban environment. Equipment, bees, and the necessary information are all easy to obtain, and no permits, licenses, or zoning variances are required, merely registration with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture so that beekeepers can be informed of potential new threats to hives. Although colony collapse disorder and other threats continue to be a serious problem, neighborhood-based amateur beekeepers actually have advantages over their larger, professional brethren.
         “Urban, hobbyist beekeepers are surviving where the commercial beekeepers are not,” Cantrell says. “The highly bred honeybees that most commercial operations rely on are sort of like purebred dogs or thoroughbred horses with all the genetic problems. My queens are mutts, which is one of the reasons I think they are stronger.”
         “In an urban environment, we’re not dealing with all the neonicotinoid pesticides that are the issue in the rural areas where they are spraying them on corn, soybeans, and clover.” Tucker adds.
         Beyond awareness about the effects of pesticides, non-beekeepers can help their hard-working insect neighbors by planting bee-friendly plants such as borage, buckwheat, catnip, Russian sage, zinnias, and sunflowers. Late summer and fall vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins are also especially attractive to bees. In general, it’s best to grow flowers from seed, as the plants available at commercial nurseries are often treated with neonicotinoid pesticides.
         Simple awareness and communication are the best tools at improving the survival chances of bees and the increasing benefits they bring to us all. That’s what Rose Mary Drake discovered in the aftermath of her morning encounter with clouds of pesticides. “A big part of the problem is that people just don’t know or think about the effect that pesticides have on bees,” Drake says. “The same day I saw my neighbor spraying, I posted on East Nashville Facebook page, just wanting to educate people — letting them know that there are people keeping bees in East Nashville and that pesticides can kill bees and asking that people do their research before they spray or fog their yards. It’s led to a very good discussion. A lot of people that were using natural alternatives to pesticides spoke up and it turned out to be a really positive thing.”
         It’s no coincidence that the beginning of human agriculture and civilization occurred simultaneously with the domestication of honey bees. It’s been a sweet collaboration for over 12 millennia, and one that we have the power to continue or bring to an end.
         “Bees are such amazing creatures,” Cantrell says. “They have a society that works together as one organism. Most people simply don’t realize just how truly special they are. Especially with the disconnect that most people now have with their food and where it comes from. It’s been said that if the bee disappeared off the surface of the Earth, then mankind would only have four years of life left. They’re simply vital to human existence.”