FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) – If honey bees were to disappear, the world — not to mention the State Fair — would grow to be a much bleaker place.
“Apples, oranges – things like that – they’d all be gone,” said Emily Campbell, the 2013 American Honey Princess.
“We wouldn’t have cherries, blueberries, cranberries, oranges, or grapefruits,” she added. “We wouldn’t have any almonds. We wouldn’t have any squash or pumpkins, or any other type of vining crop. The only things we’d have are root vegetables.”
The honey princess painted this picture for me on Monday inside the Bee and Honey section of the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, where she talks to fair-goers about bees and honey when not making event appearances. With her crown and black sash, she’s hard to miss.
Campbell, who hails from Aikin, said she got interested in bees through 4H when she was 12, and that she started beekeeping when we was 16. She has two hives, and as the princess she travels almost 100 days out of the year, telling people about the importance of bees and buying local honey.
While you can’t taste any of her honey at the fair, she does have valuable things to share. One of them is an insight like this: that every third bite of food we take is related, in some way, to honey bees.
“People don’t realize,” she said, “that cows have to eat feed…or hays with clover and alfalfa. Without those things, our cows wouldn’t be gaining as much weight as rapidly, and we wouldn’t have as high of milk yields either. So honey bees affect just about everything we eat, directly or indirectly.”
And it doesn’t stop at things we ingest. The little winged workers also pollinate cotton, the crop from which we get our T-shirts and blue jeans. We’ve woven honey bees into big money: a $20 billion pollination industry…but there’s a problem. Vast numbers of honey bees are dying for reasons that aren’t quite clear.
Colony collapse disorder
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is an extremely complicated phenomenon that basically makes entire colonies of honey bees disappear.
“We lose about 30 percent of our bee population every year,” Campbell said. “And the truth is we really don’t know why we’re losing them quite yet.”
Many things are thought to play a role in CCD. Some say that pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, are proving toxic to colonies. On top of that, there’s the lack of wildflowers, which once offered bees a balanced diet. Now, the bees have to take their fill on huge monocrop fields, or, in some cases, eat the same thing we suck down or spray on our popcorn: high-fructose corn syrup.
Add to that ugly list virus-carrying Varroa mites, a host of other diseases and that slow killer: stress.
“[CCD] is such a significant problem. Not only is our food threatened by it, but our future, in so many ways, is affected by it,” said Susan Brown, the assistant superintendent at the honey section of the Ag-Hort Building.
She says the health of honey bees has deteriorated to such a degree that there are no wild honey bees left.
“The bees that are around…are in some [honey beekeeper’s] hives,” she said.
There used to be wild honey bee hives, the kind of thing Winnie the Pooh would stick his paw in. But now those hives can’t survive.
“Those bees won’t make it a year,” Brown said.
Still, the plight of the honey makers hasn’t gone unnoticed, and people like Brown, a beekeeper and award-winning chocolatier, are doing what they can to help.
“They’re only 50 cents. You know, It’s not a huge donation, but it’s a chance for people to become a little more aware of the opportunity we have with the U of M research lab being here,” Brown said.
Fair-goers can also buy local honey and other honey treats at the Ag-Hort Building.
Becoming a worker bee
It’s not uncommon for people to have a comic book notion of bees. One thinks of a swarm chasing a child down the street like a little, angry storm cloud.
The reality is different.
“When they swarm,” Brown said, “they are actually their most docile. You can pick them up like a bowl of popcorn.”
Brown has worked with bees in the Twin Cities for about five years, ever since she took a trip to Paris and saw hives atop Palais Garnier, the opera house.
“That just opened up a whole new world to me,” she said.
She then went “rouge,” keeping bees on undisclosed rooftops in St. Paul. And she hasn’t stopped, even as legislation slowly makes its way through the system in St. Paul.
In Minneapolis, rooftop beekeeping is approved. Brown keeps bees on the Foshay rooftop, in the heart of downtown. With glass-walled skyscrapers all around, it’s the definition of urban beekeeping. She uses the honey from those hives to make treats for the W Hotel below.
She was a pioneer in the Twin Cities, but the community has since grown. Getting started, Brown said, takes some money (about $500, the price of the next Xbox) and the patience to take a class at the University of Minnesota.
Once in the community, one will likely find, according to both Brown and Campbell, beekeepers willing to talk shop and give advice at every turn.
“They’re like family,” Brown said. “Like the bees.”
Learn More At The Fair
The Agriculture-Horticulture Building offers daily exhibits on bee-related topics, from learning to cook with honey to harvesting it. They even show how to wear bees as a beard.
Moreover, the Eco Experience Building has exhibits on planting bee-friendly gardens and urban beekeeping. Brown, of Mademoiselle Miel, will be part of the exhibits Tuesday and Friday at the Eco Experience Building.