From school programs to clubs, the growing efforts to save honeybees

There is a big buzz surrounding students in Ravenna’s FFA chapter. Melanie Block, adviser of the former Future Farmers of America group, recently learned they’d been awarded a two-year, $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Rural Technology initiative.

What’s it for? On paper, the funds are meant to close the gap in technological learning between rural and urban students. But in Ravenna, the hands-on results will be much cooler. The grant will be used to set up beehives that use in-hive cameras and sensors so students can study bee activity in-depth. The students are in the planning phase now. The funds will be used to purchase equipment, plan, and set up the system and its technology, and employ a full-time staff person for the two-year project. 
Students at one Lakeshore high school will be studying the insects up close, thanks to a federal grant that will put cameras in hives.
The employee tapped to oversee the hive study will also create remote learning modules on beekeeping and the hives.

Since one-third of our food is produced by bees, gathering information about these pollinators — and using that knowledge to ensure their survival — is vital. West Michigan’s orchard industry is heavily dependent on honeybees. 

Block is proud of the work being done by the four-person student leadership team of Kaia Cooper, Olivia Woodring, Mckenna Morton, and Peyton Black, who are all enrolled in Block’s agriscience classes. She says the project’s first challenge came in adapting, as they scrapped plan A — the Beewise fully automated hive system — for Plan B, which amounts to creating their own design. 

In addition to the normal hive components and equipment, cameras and sensors will be installed to track colony swarms, control climate and humidity, and monitor pests. Once operational, the cameras will transmit hive activity that can be accessed virtually.

The plan is to begin with three hives, then double the number within the first year, in addition to an observation hive. Hives will be set up under different conditions to measure things like the amount of honey produced and the number of bees returning to the hives. Some bees will even have a GPS tracker to monitor travel patterns, number of trips to different pollen sources, and whether the bee returns to the colony at all.

The school and community came together to enact the idea. “We applied for the grant with the help of several partners,” Block says. “Our superintendent, Mr. Greg Helmer, and Principal Justin Wilson were key in making this happen. We also have multiple community stakeholders including Sai Naik from Mavin Global with technology support, John Kraus from the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District (MAISD), and numerous helpful contacts from Michigan State University, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP), local farms, agribusinesses, and technology companies.”
Drs. Ana Heck and Meghan Milbrath, MSU bee specialists, have been helpful resources, along with local beekeeper Chris Wilde, whose children attend Ravenna Public Schools. Since the award was announced, beekeepers at John Ball Zoo have also offered support.

Pollinator impact

“In Michigan, there are about 465 different species of bees,” says Heck. “Honeybees are just one of those species and the ones that are primarily used in pollination by growers or beekeepers. They can be relocated as a colony and brought in specifically for crop pollination.”

“One-third of everything we eat depends on pollination,” says Don Lam, of the Holland Area Beekeepers Association (HABA). “Imagine losing one bite out of every three.”Don Lam

“The honeybee is the big worker in that department. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and insects pollinate, too, but the honeybee — that’s why we can move a hive into a blueberry field and pollinate it.”

Fruit crops depend heavily on help from honeybees for pollination. Without his little insect working behind the scenes in West Michigan, a portion of the region’s vibrant orchard industry would be lost.

“Unless the pollinator gets in there and causes the flower to make a seed, like a cherry or raspberry or blueberry, you won’t have that fruit,” Lam says. “It depends on the bee to deliver. Water and fertilizer make the fruit larger, but pollinators are the only input in some agricultural crops that will increase yield.”

Better yields are not the only end result. Sweet local honey is delicious and finds its way to tables as a condiment, in recipes, or used medicinally. Don’t waste it; 2 million flower visits are needed to produce a pound of honey.

Honeybees at risk

Parasitic Varroa mites, a dangerous honeybee pathogen, began wiping out beehives about 20 years ago, according to Dr. Adam Ingrao, an MSU pollinator specialist. The parasite attacks the honeybee’s immune system. Even if a hive survives an infestation due to mitigation with miticides, the colony’s health has been compromised and often succumbs to other factors.

“Varroa mites are the No. 1 bee problem worldwide with both large- and small-scale beekeepers. There has been about a 30-40% loss in colonies each year since we began recording data, sometime between 2007 and 2009,” Ingrao says. “Fifteen percent annually is a sustainable loss.”

Lam says winter kill is another colony loss factor. A colony short on stored food likely won’t make it through a long winter. He usually supplements the hives, beginning in the fall, to build enough food supply for winter. A warm thaw — no matter how brief — in January and February is good for hive health, allowing them to leave the hive and stretch.
MSU Pollinator Performance Center

While the official announcement has yet to be made, MSU is in the process of converting an unused south campus facility on College Road into a central hub for pollinator study and education.

Education, research into new modes of action for miticide application and technology, along with developing a strain of honeybee that is resistant to Varroa mites is the three-pronged approach to battling and conquering bee losses worldwide. 

When operational, the facility will also house the Heroes to Hives program, the largest ag training program for military veterans in the country. Started in 2016 by Ingrao — himself a veteran — 669 veterans and 227 military spouses, dependents, and widows/widowers from 25 states have gone through the free program. He estimates 4,000 hives are being kept by program alumni throughout the U.S. 

In early January, just under 450 people were signed up for the online and in-person hybrid training. Thanks to a recent article published by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Heroes to Hives received more than 10,000 enrollment requests over the course of a weekend, triggering the program to close enrollment for this year and placing over 3000 enrollees on 2022’s class list.

Bees in Holland

Ingrao says education is the most successful way to improve the health and sustainability of pollinators, and that’s where the local bee clubs are a great tool and resource.

“We don’t really need more beekeepers,” Ingrao says. “We need educated beekeepers.”

In Holland, HABA membership has grown from a handful of members when Lam first joined 25 years ago to around 500. He says the growth is a bubble that happened when word of the devastating Varroa mite began making headlines. “I hate to call it a bubble, and I think it has stabilized for now; I hope the renewed interest continues.”

Monthly educational meetings (now interrupted by COVID-19) and spring beekeeping schools are the foundation of local beekeeper education. The Holland club chose to skip bee school for the year.

Kalamazoo chose the virtual route, and surrounding clubs are directing new members to Kalamazoo’s class this year. The Michigan Beekeepers Association is also holding virtual classes in March. (Register here: michiganbees.org/spring-conference)

A family affair

“It often starts out as a family project,” Lam says. “People say that their dad or grandpa kept a few hives and now they want to do it with their children.”

He enjoys introducing entire families to the art of beekeeping and has personally mentored many beginners.

Lam says that, after the first year of buying equipment, the cost goes down. “It is a good family activity, and you can do it in your backyard without a lot of expense.”
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