Program raises bees in the face of population decline
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Ivy Academy student Noah Lewis walks outside to inspect the school’s bee population each week. Curious students eagerly watch from a distance as the senior beekeeper inspects the hive, looking for signs the queen bee is healthy and repopulating.
It’s exactly what faculty adviser and academy director of environmental programming Ansly Eichhorn had in mind when she and another faculty member went through a bee training program several years ago. The environmentally focused charter school wanted to add a bee population to its agricultural science program and received a grant to kick off the effort.
“It’s a really neat way to teach students where their food and everything comes from,” Eichhorn said.
The value of crops benefiting from honey bee pollination exceeds $500 million annually in Tennessee, according to reports from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Almonds are entirely dependent on honey bees for pollination, and other crops such as blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on the insect for pollination. Teachers at the academy have been able to work factoids about bees and the program into classes across subjects, giving students lessons they can watch play out firsthand.
Several students showed initial interest in the program, but it was Lewis who took initiative. He quickly became fascinated by the opportunity to study and care for the campus’ bee population. His hands-on beekeeping approach involves monitoring the health of the population, looking for larvae and seeing if the queen is laying eggs. It’s a constant cycle, he said.
Lewis has now spent three years studying the bees and plans to keep raising some on his own after graduation. He keeps notes and uploads data and photos to iNaturalist, an online database for people to record and share the nature around them.
“It’s citizen science,” he said.
The program has been a hit with students. Lewis is the first student to come through the program with a mentor and then mentor younger students. Two underclassman at the high school have been working with Lewis and will continue the program after he graduates. There’s also huge interest in the program from middle school students, Eichhorn said. They’ve watched Lewis through the highs and lows and are beginning to understand the difficulty that’s been haunting beekeepers nationwide for decades.
Bees are dying at an alarming rate worldwide, and at an especially high rate in Tennessee. The average annual honey bee colony loss over the last 20 years in Tennessee was about 42 percent, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Last year, that number ballooned to more than 80 percent, well above the national average, which preliminary data shows at more than 30 percent. Tennessee Valley Beekeepers Association Vice President Doug Eckert thinks that number might even be low.
“It’s embarrassing (for beekeepers to lose hives), so they’re not going to overreport the number. If anything, they’re going to underreport the numbers they’ve lost,” he said.
There isn’t a singular explanation for the population loss, known as colony collapse disorder, and there’s some disagreement about the primary causes. However, Eckert sees the problem as three-fold: pests, pesticide use and monoculture.
Eckert and the beekeepers group have partnered with Ivy Academy and are helping Lewis raise the bees. However, the academy has experienced the problem firsthand. Lewis and Eichhorn had an unsuccessful attempt to add a second colony on campus. They believe there was some human error, but added the bees didn’t take well to the queen and didn’t handle the proximity to the other hive well.
Lewis will continue raising the population until graduation and has turned it into his senior project. He is working on several beekeeping methods and will try to determine which work best. However, a total colony collapse is something he has to keep at the forefront of his mind.
“I think about it every day. I mean like every single day,” he said. “I’m super concerned because the facts are in. We’re just losing so many that we can’t build our numbers back.”
“What Noah is saying there is what beekeepers in Tennessee have been saying for a long time,” Eckert added. “They are stunned.”
Eckert and Lewis believe there are ways the general public can help with the problem. Lewis wants more people to begin beekeeping as a hobby. He’d like to see fewer beekeepers with thousands of colonies and more people willing to raise a colony or two on their own. The practice would spread and potentially grow the population, he believes. It would also minimize the risk of a disease outbreak killing bees in bulk.
Eckert also noted additional solutions.
“What people can do, I think, is become more informed about the issue and individually shy away from the use of insecticides and plant a lot of wildflowers,” he said. “Wildflowers are the apothecary for bees. Don’t get so upset when you see dandelions in your yard. Dandelions are great for bees.”