Local Producers

Bee stories

Bee stories

Photo: A native Wisconsin bee. Andrena geranii, a northernish species that appears to be a specialist on…geraniums. Photo by Aaman Dengis and Brooke Alexander, USGS Bee Monitoring Lab.


Aristotle didn’t believe bees made honey. He thought the bees collected honey from flowers and grasses. Honey formed in the air and gathered like dew on the petals. It was the condensation of rainbows—according to the father of Western science. Maybe in Aristotle’s day they had more rainbows.

PFC, unfortunately, can’t rely on rainbows. In Rochester, our honey comes from three local producers: Metz’s Hart-Land Honey, The Bee Shed, and Hiawatha Honey. “Bulk honey is a huge seller at the store,” says Karla Meyer, PFC—Rochester’s store manager.

None of our suppliers produce organic honey. No beekeeper I’ve talked to or read about believes that such a thing exists. Bees wander around too much, so it’s not possible to certify that every plant they’ve visited for pollen and nectar hasn’t been sprayed with pesticide.

In La Crosse, Gentle Breeze has been one of People’s Food Co-op’s local suppliers of honey for over 20 years. No one is exactly sure, though, when the bees started working with people. “Domesticated?” Eugene Woller of Gentle Breeze laughs. “Bees aren’t domesticated. They’ll co-operate with you, but they’re not a domestic animal.”

That co-operation started a long time ago as agriculture spread and bees stepped in as pollinators, going about their task of collecting nectar and pollen for food. Crops dependent on honeybee pollination amount to about a third of what we eat—including almonds, apples, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, onions, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, and soybeans. The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is not native to North America. It was brought to this continent by the European colonists and proceeded westward a few miles ahead of the settlements.


Checking in on the bees at Gentle Breeze Honey with Eugene and Tim Woller.


Eugene Woller has been working with honeybees since 1965. He started with 11 hives and now has close to 700. They get about 120 pounds of honey from each hive, “sometimes 200 pounds.” Besides honey, Gentle Breeze also extracts wax from the hives to make candles and for bulk wax sales. “You get stung some. Some days are good and you only get 30 stings,” Eugene says.

Rochester’s Bee Shed has been supplying People’s Food Co-op with honey since 2014. Partners Chris Schad and John Shonyo have been keeping bees since 2008 or so. They each started with two hives. They have more than 100 now. We sat down for a chat in late December at their small warehouse, not to say, bee shed.

Chris: “Our original intention was to sell bee equipment for bee keepers. I wanted to do honey production. The co-op was one of the first stores we talked to about selling our honey.”

“And as we’ve grown the bee side of the business,” John says, “we had less time for equipment retail.”

The Bee Shed no longer offers bee equipment, but they do have classes on beekeeping. They also do mentoring and prairie restoration work. Class information is on their website at www.thebeeshed.com.

The pollinator sideline

One hundred years ago, most beekeepers were only in it for the honey. Pollination was a favor done for local farmers. Beginning in the 1940s though, after the end of World War II, beekeepers started renting out their hives to farmers and getting paid for it. This was encouraged by the USDA. Postwar, as chemicals developed for the war industry were diverted to pesticides, the local, native beneficial insects that had always been the nation’s primary pollinators began to disappear. The USDA settled on the honeybee as the replacement. Farmers would have a single pollinator that could be trucked from farm to farm for all our crops. What could go wrong?

In early 2005, beekeepers began reporting a disturbing behavior in their hives. The bees would abandon the hive, leaving queen, brood, and piles of honey. The beekeeper would open the hive and find it empty. Odder still, other insects and bees who typically raid such stores would leave the abandoned honey alone. The syndrome came to be known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

One side effect of the arrival of CCD in 2005 was that it made it painfully clear how important bees are to farm production. The sudden shortage of bees tripled the price growers would pay beekeepers to ship their hives to California. Most honeybee pollinator operations are much larger than the Bee Shed or Gentle Breeze, with thousands of hives on trucks going from Florida to Texas to California, then up through Oregon and Washington—following the seasons, and constantly keeping their bees at work. But by 2006, there weren’t enough bees to be had and even small operators’ hives were in demand.

Gentle Breeze has 300 hives—half their colonies—in California now. Even a small outfit like the Bee Shed has gotten into the pollinator business. “In October, we sent 36 hives to Los Banos, California for the almond season,” Chris says. “Seventy-five percent of all honeybees in the U.S. are in California for the almonds now.”

Some crops are dependent on honeybees for their success. Almonds are the most well-known example. In early spring, when the almond trees blossom, honeybee hives are set up in the groves to pollinate the flowers and collect the pollen and nectar that the bees use to make honey. This honey is not sold commercially, but the bees consume it in their late spring preparation and brooding for the summer season when they return to Minnesota and Wisconsin. That summer honey is harvested by Gentle Breeze and the Bee Shed for retail sale.

Bees have been in trouble for a number of years. Since the arrival of CCD, the number of colonies lost each year has only gone up. Beekeepers now lose about 30% of their hives every winter, three times as many as a decade ago. Losses of up to 90% are not uncommon. The Bee Shed, for example, lost 25% of its hives last summer. Chris: “That’s unspeakable.”

“I’ve seen more CCD in the last five years than before,” Eugene Woller notes.

The price of replacing the lost bees has gone up as well. A “cage of bees [a box of several hundred bees with a queen] has gone from $7 to $175. And you won’t find any feral bees anymore like you could at one time. You won’t find any honey trees out there like you used to,” John Shonyo says.

“I feel for the commercial beekeepers,” Chris says. “The big guys with thousands of colonies and dozens of employees. Imagine a cattle farmer, or dairy farmer, losing 25% of their livestock every year.”

The Bee Shed makes honey. Chris Schad and John Shonyo.

No one factor has been identified as the cause of honeybees’ decline. Instead, as University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak notes, “Multiple interacting factors” are now at play in the loss of honeybees. New types of pesticides, loss of forage for bees to feed on in our monocropping agriculture, outbreaks of bee parasites and viruses, and climate change are all elements in honeybee decline.

The multiple factors at play have made CCD a difficult mystery to solve. Government regulators rely on sound science and reproducible field tests. This has led scientists to suffer something of a colony collapse themselves as they try to isolate individual factors for a foraging animal that flies at random over a five-mile radius gathering food from dozens of locations.

Neonicotinoids (neonics)—new systemic pesticides—have been blamed for the bee losses, but the EPA has not been able to isolate the chemicals as the cause in spite of CCD’s coincidental appearance after the market release of the neonic clothianidin in 2004.

Loss of pasture

We live in a landscape increasingly formed to human needs. Weeds are food for bees and other pollinators. Monocrop agriculture represents a vast food desert for bees. Farms at one time grew a variety of plants that flowered at different times of the season. Now, one type of plant will be the only food source for miles. The almond fields of California, for example, produce 80% of the world’s almonds. For a few weeks in the spring, the farms have an abundance of food for the bees, but afterwards, there’s no other forage as farmers keep ground plants closely mowed to facilitate mechanical harvesting of the almonds.
Additionally, as farmers have been encouraged to plant “fenceline to fenceline,” verges and bottomlands have been put into production, reducing the wild forage that bees (native and honeybees) need to survive. As Chris Schad notes, “The lower swales of farmland are gone. They’ve ripped those out and put in tiles and planted them.

“We work with Northwoods Orchard,” Chris continues. “They do a lot for pollinators. They’re putting in vetch, buckwheat. And they leave the dandelions alone. We have bees at Quarry Hill and we have them in two county parks. We’re trying to get bees into downtown Rochester, trying to build a coalition with different organizations downtown.”

Mites and disease

In recent decades a bee parasite has spread across the country’s hives. A small mite infests bee hives and bites through the bee’s skin (both the bee larva and adult bee), to feed. The bite is bad enough, but to add injury to insult, the presence of such parasites increases the incidence of viral disease that will weaken or kill the bee. As Chris notes, “It’s not the tick bite that will make [a human] sick, it’s the Lyme disease that does it. The mites transmit viruses. There are probably 20 different viruses out there and they’re getting stronger.”

“The mites don’t kill outright—they weaken the bee,” John Shonyo adds. “And mite resistance to our remedies is increasing.”

Climate change

Changes in temperature will alter the blooming of plants. Insects that have evolved to hatch and work in sync with plants will show up too late or too early for the flowers they are evolved to pollinate.

Insects that have evolved in climates without strong temperature swings are more susceptible to disruption when the climate changes. For example, scientist Brad Lister reported in The Guardian newspaper recently, “between 1985 and 2017, 98% of ground insects and 80% of the canopy insects had vanished from the Puerto Rican rain forest.”

On his return to the Puerto Rican forest where he had done his research 35 years before, he immediately noticed that the place was eerily quiet. The birds were gone. “It’s all connected,” he said. “When the invertebrates are declining, the entire food web is going to suffer and degrade. It is a system-wide effect.”

Eugene Woller reports that the increased incidence of wet weather has affected his bees. “This year the varroa mites were bad [in the hives] because of the wet weather. The bees didn’t get out to get all the goldenrod pollen they should have. If it rains and rains like that, the queen stops laying eggs and the mites get in and lay their eggs in the cells. The mites suck the fat off the bees and the bees die without that fat in the winter. Usually, we have honey flow into September, but not this year.”

“Rain events wash out pollen,” Chris says. “So you won’t have any comb production. And as they stay active longer into the year, the amount of food they’ll need to get through the winter goes up.”


“Monocultures invite pests,” Marla Spivak notes, “which then call out pesticides.”

In Central Illinois, a conventional soybean farmer showed me around his new tractor. There was still seed from a recent planting in the planter’s hopper and a few seeds were scattered on the floor of the shed. They are a bright purple color. The size of a Tic-Tac, they looked more like a candy than a seed.

“The seed’s inside that coating,” the farmer said. “They’re planted with the pesticide jacket. That’s the default on seeds now. That’s just how they sell them.”

The new neonic pesticides are systemic. They’re planted with the seeds and as the plant grows, the pesticide is incorporated into the fiber (and pollen and nectar) of the plant. The dose an individual bee picks up from the plant’s nectar may not kill her, but it may be enough to disorient her—making it more difficult for her to find her way back to the hive.

A healthy bee might survive such sublethal doses, but not one already stressed with parasites, viruses, and lack of food. Research is only now beginning to understand the persistence of chemicals and pesticides in the environment. Analyses of bees’ wax has found 118 different chemicals—some of which haven’t been used for decades, such as DDT. The synergistic effect of these multiple chemicals has not been well studied. An EPA official told the authors of the book Vanishing Bees that the EPA “has no formal means of assessing sublethal and interactive effects of pesticides on pollinators.”

Humans like honeybees, but we really don’t like insects. We dislike them so much we spend $65 billion a year on pesticides to kill them, worldwide. Bees, though, are particularly vulnerable to pesticides. Insects that eat plants, such as grasshoppers, have evolved to get around plant defenses. When grasshoppers encounter a new pesticide, the animal will be set back for a few generations while it develops an immunity to the new poison. Bees, which have evolved to service flowers, aren’t evolved to respond to plant defenses as rapidly.

Trouble with the natives

One might wonder: if honeybees are in danger, why don’t we simply use some of the thousands of native bees for the pollination of our crops? After all, there are more than 20,000 different kinds of bees. Only a few of those species build hives and make honey. Most bees are solitaries, making their nests in bare earth or hollows in trees and small branches. And pollination isn’t done only by bees—butterflies, some moths and beetles, and others—are pollinators of plants. There are thousands upon thousands of different pollinator insect species. Or at least there were.

Whatever decline the honeybee suffers, the native population of bees follows. Nobody quite knows for sure, as nobody has really been tracking native bee populations overall. Scientist are starting to notice that some things have gone missing. The total number of insects lost in the regions where people have been paying attention seems to be at least 80%. The first study, published in 2014, was done in Germany and a more recent study was done in Puerto Rico.

We haven’t noticed the decline of native pollinators before, officially, because scientists tend to specialize in single species or groups, not total insects in a region. Quantitative studies were seen as uninteresting and not worth funding. Also, humans don’t seem to notice diminishment as much as absence. Next time you find yourself driving across Iowa on a summer’s night, count the bug strikes on your windshield. There may be a half dozen streaks, but it’s not the plastering that your parents’ car would have experienced a generation ago. Things have changed. The insects go and the birds follow.

The USDA was an early booster of chemically dependent agriculture and recognized the importance of the honeybee as a pollinator of landscapes under the new chemical regime. As noted in the book Vanishing Bees, already in 1951 the USDA recognized that the native, local pollinators were being replaced by the honeybee. In fact, that was stated policy. In that year, USDA’s bee scientist E.F. Phillips wrote:

Increased use of insecticides has often resulted in the reduction of beneficial insects in such areas, honeybees suffering with the others…. More recently there has been an increase in the use of insecticides on field crops, and the decline in beneficial insects has been even more pronounced than in orchards, because of the more effective applications by modern equipment, the greater effectiveness of modern insecticides, and because of the unrestricted areas that permit application on every square inch…. Clearly from now on many orchardists and seed growers cannot insure adequate population or effective pollination without using honeybees.

In the last 70 years, the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has declined overall from 4.5 to 2 million, while the honeybee became the critical pollinator of industrial agriculture.

“You know, we used to have all kinds of bees,” Eugene Woller says. “Now we have only three. We want a perfect apple—but if you spray everything, you aren’t going to have any apples at all. The insecticide accumulates in the hive; after ten years you have to throw the frames away.”

The Gentle Breeze crew at work. From left, Tyler, Stewart, Harold, Eugene, and Donna.



Selected references

“The Insect Apocalypse Is Here: What happens—and who notices—when an invisible fact of life goes missing?” The New York Times Magazine (cover story). Brooke Jarvis. 27 November 2018. www.brookejarvis.net/articles

A Short History of the Honey Bee. E. Readicker-Henderson and Ilona. 2009.

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees. Thor Hanson. 2018.

Our Native Bees. Paige Embry. 2018.

Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics, and Honeybee Health. Sainath Suryanarayanan and D.L. Kleinman. 2017.

Marla Spivak’s TED Talk may be accessed here: www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing?language=en.

“Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems,’” The Guardian Newspaper online accessed 14 January 2019. www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/15/insect-collapse-we-are-destroying-our-life-support-systems

"Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Agriculturally Important Beneficial Insects"
By Jennifer Hopwood, Scott Hoffman Black, Mace Vaughan, and Eric Lee-Mäder. 2013. http://xerces.org/beyond-the-birds-and-the-bees/